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Kuwait Women Cast First Parliament Votes

By DIANA ELIAS
The Associated Press
Thursday, June 29, 2006; 8:05 PM

KUWAIT CITY -- Some female voters came in buses and others stepped out of chauffeur-driven cars at polling stations Thursday, as women in Kuwait voted in parliamentary elections for the first time.

Women, who won the right to vote and run for office last year, comprise 57 percent of the electorate, and many were delighted to cast ballots for the first time.

"It feels like a wedding day," said Salwa al-Sanoussi, 45, who was one of the first to arrive at the segregated women's polling station in Dahyia, one of Kuwait's wealthiest areas. She wore black and covered her hair with a matching headcover.

Unofficial partial results were reported early Friday morning by Kuwait television, which said women candidates were trailing in nearly every district. But the station did not provide more specifics or percentages of the vote count, making it impossible to determine how far advanced the tallying was.

The reports said that four of the 50 parliament seats up for grabs had been decided with reformist candidates winning three and an independent winning the remainder. The first official results were expected later in the day Friday.

In Washington, the State Department said the participation of women in the elections was "a huge step forward" for Kuwait and the region. Saudi Arabia is now the only Arab country that holds elections but doesn't allow women to vote.

Khalida al-Kheder, one of 27 women running for a seat in parliament, was shocked by the behavior of conservative tribal women who arrived in large groups at the Sulaibikhat constituency and cheered loudly for male candidates.

"They brought them in buses," said al-Kheder, a physician. "This is not the image we wanted for democracy in Kuwait."

Al-Kheder also disapproved of the women's aggressive campaigning, shouting and waving placards in a country where women are traditionally discreet.

Many analysts predicted women would vote according to the wishes of their husbands and fathers, especially in districts where tribal and Islamic fundamentalist influences are strong.

But Hind Ibn al-Sheik said conversations with women at the polling station in her constituency led her to believe they were making their own decisions.

"They all had opinions," Ibn al-Sheik, a lawyer, told The Associated Press.

In some of the wealthier districts, women arriving to vote were presented with roses and escorted into the polling stations under umbrellas to shield them from the scorching 108-degree heat.

"Women are the X factor in the equation," said candidate Abdullah al-Naibari, who predicted the female vote would prove decisive in determining whether reformists or conservatives win control of the legislature.

In the first turnout figure to be issued, state television said that in the Kuwait City suburb of Qibla, 66 percent of female voters and 77 percent of male voters had cast ballots.

The election sparked a surprisingly strong campaign for reform in Kuwait, where the ruling Al Sabah family has long headed the government and maintains a strong influence on politics.

Reformist candidates _ who include Islamic fundamentalists and secular activists _ spoke out harshly against corruption, accusing ministers and even members of the ruling family of mismanagement and wasting state land.

Authorities did not curb the campaigns, but the emir, Sheik Sabah Al Ahmed Al Sabah, expressed his "deep hurt and dismay" over what he called the "low level of dialogue."

Candidate al-Kheder said the campaign talk had "exaggerated" corruption in Kuwait and the debate had become too confrontational.

"Democracy is very beautiful, but there has to be respect and finesse in disagreement," she said.

The election was called after an unprecedented debate over redrawing the country's 25 electoral districts _ each of which elects two legislators.

Reformists called for the number of constituencies to be cut to five, arguing that would make it almost impossible to buy votes. But the Cabinet introduced a bill that would cut the voting districts to 10. Reformist lawmakers stormed out of the parliament in protest.

Days later the emir dissolved the legislature and called new elections.

Parliament has long been divided along tribal lines as well as between Islamists and liberals, but many Kuwaitis now hope the new legislature will split along the more political lines of reform versus conservatism.

Reformist candidates have vowed to table a bill to reduce the electoral districts to five.

© 2006 The Associated Press