Mon, May 19, 2008 - Page 6 News List

Voters in Kuwait re-elect Islamist, tribal politicians


No women made it to Kuwait’s legislature as voters in the Gulf Arab state ushered back in many Islamist and tribal politicians from the previous house, which could mean further stagnation in economic reform.

Twenty-seven women were among the 275 hopefuls in the race for the 50 seats that became vacant when the ruler Sheikh Sabah al-Ahmad al-Sabah dissolved parliament in March, ending a standoff with the Cabinet that had delayed economic reforms.

The bourse edged down after the results. The exchange, the second largest in the Arab world, had risen after parliament was dissolved on hopes the new chamber would be more business-friendly but has since shed some of its gains.

The last assembly focused on questioning ministers over their conduct, forcing several to resign. The OPEC producer has yet to appoint an oil minister since the last one quit in November.

Women failed to secure any seats in the 2006 polls. The country gave women the right to vote and stand for office in 2005, but many nationals of both sexes believe a woman’s place is in the home.

Twenty-eight members of the previous parliament were re-elected, results carried by the official media said. Many of the new faces hail from tribal areas.

Voters also brought back two Shiite Muslim politicians who had been questioned over participating in a ceremony that has highlighted sectarian tensions in the mainly Sunni country.

Shiite representation rose by one member of parliament to five while the Islamic Constitutional Movement, Kuwait’s version of the Middle East’s Muslim Brotherhood movement, won three seats compared with six in the dissolved house.

Several members of the Islamic Salafist movement won seats.

The two-month campaign leading up to Saturday’s polls was marred by protests, arrests and confusion after a new law redrew electoral districts to ensure a more balanced representation in a parliament that has tended to be dominated by Islamist blocs and tribal alliances.

Kuwait, which sits on a 10th of the world’s oil reserves, wants to wean its economy off energy exports and emulate the success of neighbors like Dubai and Bahrain, which have transformed themselves into financial centers and tourist destinations.

Amid the political squabbles, reforms such as a bill to attract foreign investment were left on the back burner.

Part of the problem is that ordinary Kuwaitis oppose reforms that would cut their benefits. They pay no taxes and are content with state jobs and handouts and free health and schools.

Voters said political squabbling had diverted too much attention away from using oil revenues for economic development.

Although many candidates had heaped criticism on what they called the “weak” Cabinet, most Kuwaitis seem to blame lawmakers more for the political gridlock.

Parliament has mounted a number of challenges against Cabinet ministers, grilling them or threatening to impeach them over a range of issues from endangering religious values to corruption. The animosity paralyzed politics and halted plans to privatize the single-source economy.

Those plans include unpopular moves such as introducing income taxes, which Kuwait has never done, and allowing foreign companies into the state-owned oil sector.

Saturday’s elections saw the reduction of electoral districts from 25 to just five to defeat attempts at vote-buying.

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