June 28, 2006

Women vote and run in Kuwaiti poll for first time

By Haitham Haddadin

KUWAIT (Reuters) - Kuwait holds parliamentary elections on
Thursday in which women can run for office and cast votes for
the first time in a national poll in the oil-producing Gulf
Arab country.

The poll was called after Kuwaiti Emir Sheikh Sabah
al-Ahmad al-Sabah dissolved parliament last month following a
standoff between the government and opposition over electoral

The opposition accuses the government, a close U.S. ally,
of trying to turn parliament into a rubber-stamp assembly. But
the government says it is committed to reform.

The opposition is a loose alliance of 29 pro-reform former
parliamentarians and Islamist and liberal groupings, tolerated
in a country that bans parties.

Parliament passed a law in May 2005 giving women the right
to vote and stand as candidates in elections for the 50-seat
National Assembly.

More than 250 candidates are standing, including 28 women
determined to make headway despite daunting odds against any
female candidate beating seasoned male opponents, many of them
former parliamentarians seeking re-election.

"The participation of women in the elections makes this a
historic day for Kuwait," said U.S.-educated female candidate
Fatima al-Abdali. "The success of any woman will be a victory
for all Kuwaiti, Gulf and Arab women."

Many experts say voting by conservative groups such as
Islamists and powerful tribes will hurt the chances of women

Female candidates themselves believe one or two of them
could win since women make up 57 percent of the 340,000
eligible voters.

"I've dreamt about this for so long," said a 35-year-old
female candidate, Naeemah al-Hay. "Women are allowed to try to
put themselves in the assembly. Whether they succeed or not, it
will be a change."

But most experts see only a small chances of success for
female candidates given their political inexperience, tough
competition from male candidates with established voter bases
and the limited time they had to prepare campaigns.

The opposition, labeling the poll as a "battle of good and
evil," have also accused some cabinet ministers and ruling
family members of sponsoring corrupt practices such as
vote-buying. The government dismisses the charge.

"It's time to get back our dreams ... to get a parliament
that honors Kuwait," said opposition figure Abdullah Naibari.

(Additional reporting by Yara Bayoumy)