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World News

Kuwait women enter parliament, Islamists lose ground

KUWAIT (Reuters) - Women won four seats in Kuwait’s parliament, a first for the Gulf Arab state, in an election that also saw liberals and Shi’ites claw five seats away from Sunni Islamists who have long dominated the 50-seat assembly.

Former minister Massouma al-Mubarak smiles at a polling station in Kuwait City May 16, 2009. REUTERS/Stephanie McGehee

The gains at the expense of Islamists, who have led parliamentary opposition to the government’s economic reform efforts and who are allied to conservative tribal figures who won 25 seats, may not be enough to end the long-running tussle.

“The results of the elections were a surprise for all but many of the ‘deadlock’ MPs returned, especially from the tribal areas. It remains to be seen how the government will deal with economic reforms,” political analyst Shamlan al-Eissa said.

Kuwait’s ruler, Sheikh Sabah al-Ahmad al-Sabah, called the election after dissolving the assembly two months ago to end the standoff between parliament and the government, which is heavily influenced by the ruling family.

The move allowed the government and al-Sabah to push ahead with a $5 billion stimulus package to soften the effects of the global financial crisis. The new assembly must now vote on the plan again.

FEWER SUNNI LAWMAKERS

Sunni Islamists won just 11 seats on Saturday, down from 21 in the last assembly. Liberals won eight seats, up from seven last year. Lawmakers representing the Shi’ite community, which comprises a third of Kuwait’s population, rose by four to nine.

Kuwait’s first women lawmakers include Massouma al-Mubarak, who became Kuwait’s first female minister in 2005, the year women were first given the right to vote and run for office. The others are U.S.-educated professors Salwa al-Jassar and Aseel Awadhi and leading economist Rola Dashti.

No women won seats in the 2006 and 2008 elections in the conservative Muslim country where politics is still widely seen as a man’s domain.

The Salafist Movement, a Sunni Islamist bloc, had called on voters to boycott female candidates though analysts predicted the move could backfire.

“Islamists have lost a lot of their credibility. They focus on matters like segregation and not able to take us anywhere,” political analyst Shafiq al-Ghabra said before the poll.

Sixteen women were among the 210 candidates. Some 384,790 Kuwaitis, over half of them women, were eligible to vote.

ECONOMIC REFORMS

There are no political parties in Kuwait, the world’s fourth largest oil exporter, but parliament has tended to be dominated by Islamists and tribal figures who oppose government efforts to trim the welfare state and who accuse it of corruption.

Although its political system resembles Western democracy more closely than that of any other nation in the Gulf Arab region, Kuwait has fallen behind its neighbours who have transformed themselves into commercial, financial and tourist centres that attract foreign investors.

Parliament has however blocked many of Kuwait’s major projects and last year the state was forced to rescue a bank.

Kuwait scrapped a tender to build a $15 billion refinery under pressure from deputies who alleged tender violations.

Project Kuwait, a plan to boost output capacity, has never made it beyond committee level because of opposition from some MPs to the involvement of foreign firms in the energy sector.

Parliament has yet to pass a law establishing a regulator to bring more transparency to the second-largest Arab bourse.

Deputies have instead focussed on questioning ministers over alleged graft or misconduct. The government, dominated by the ruling family, baulks at allowing ministers to be questioned. The ruler has repeatedly resorted to cabinet reshuffles and fresh elections to avoid parliamentary scrutiny.

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