Kuwait women enter parliament

By Rania El Gamal and Eman Goma

KUWAIT (Reuters) - Women won four seats in Kuwait's parliament, a first in the Gulf Arab state's history, but with many of the same faces back, Saturday's election is unlikely to end a political deadlock that has delayed economic reforms.

Sunni Islamists lost some ground while Shi'ites and liberals made small gains, but analysts said the changes were not enough to end a long-running standoff between parliament and government that has pushed Kuwait from one crisis to the next.

"People voted for change because people are fed up with deadlocks. It is time to focus on our priorities inside the parliament," Aseel al-Awadhi, one of Kuwait's first women lawmakers told Reuters after her win.

Kuwait's main index ended 0.38 percent higher, offering a lukewarm reception to the changes.

"This is a historic election... but the so-called deadlock MPs are also back and we hope they change course," said Ali al-Baghli, a former oil minister.

Kuwait's ruler, Sheikh Sabah al-Ahmad al-Sabah, called the election after dissolving the assembly two months ago to end its standoff with the cabinet, which includes ruling family members.

The move allowed the government and ruler to push ahead with a $5 billion (113, 942 pounds) economic stimulus package to soften the effects of the global financial crisis, which had faced opposition in parliament. The new assembly must now vote on the plan.

Some analysts say the appointment of a strong prime minister and cabinet is key to resolving Kuwait's political crisis.

Kuwait has had five cabinets in the past three years, and the ruler has reappointed his nephew, Sheikh Nasser al-Mohammad al-Sabah, as prime minister every time.

Successive cabinets have been bogged down by allegations of corruption or misconduct from parliamentary deputies.

"We need to have a government that is able to lead and move forward with reforms... I think there is a possibility that we will see a similar crisis," said political analyst Shafiq Ghabra. "The question is which way will the government move?"

WOMEN WIN SEATS

There are no political parties in Kuwait, the world's fourth largest oil exporter, which means lawmakers can easily shift alliances depending on the issue at stake, making it hard to predict how the new assembly is likely to work with the cabinet.

While parliament has tended to be dominated by tribesmen and Islamists, liberals have often joined in opposition to major economic projects and efforts to trim the welfare state.

Sunni Islamists won around 11 seats Saturday, down from some 21 in the last assembly, Reuters calculated based on a list of names published by state news agency KUNA.

Liberals won about eight seats, up from around seven. Lawmakers from the Shi'ite Muslim community, about a third of the Kuwaiti population, rose by four to nine. The rest went to tribesmen who have long dominated the assembly.

Apart from al-Awadhi, 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 leading economist Rola Dashti.

Women won no seats in the 2006 and 2008 elections in the conservative state where politics is still seen as a man's game.

The Salafist Movement, a Sunni Islamist bloc, had urged voters to boycott women candidates during the election campaign.

Although its political system resembles Western democracy more closely than that of any other nation in the Gulf Arab region, Kuwait has fallen behind neighbours like Dubai, which have grown into commercial, financial and tourist centres.

(Writing by Lin Noueihed; editing by Richard Balmforth)

Article Published: 17/05/2009