- The Washington Times - Thursday, June 1, 2006

KUWAIT CITY — After years of waiting, Kuwaiti women suddenly have the chance to run for parliament. Now they are rushing to sell voters in this conservative nation on the idea of female politicians.

Elections had been scheduled for summer 2007, the first since women were given the right to vote and run for office last year. But on May 21, Kuwait’s ruler, Sheik Sabah Al Ahmed Al Sabah, dissolved the all-male 50-member parliament because of a rowdy dispute over election laws and ordered early elections June 29.

Women who thought they had more than a year to plan their campaigns were given only five weeks.

“The advantage is that we will be working and concentrating harder,” said Fatima al-Abdali, who submitted her application to run on the first day of registration last week.

The elections department at the Interior Ministry said the 340,000 eligible voters include about 195,000 women, or 57 percent. So far, 17 women have registered as candidates.

However, many think women in this traditional society will cast their ballots according to the wishes of their husbands, fathers and brothers along tribal, sectarian and family lines.

“It is a challenge, but we’ll be ready,” said Rola Dashti, a U.S.-educated economist who has been planning her candidacy — and working to build a voter base — since parliament gave women the right to vote.

Kuwait, one of the strongest U.S. allies in the Persian Gulf, is one of the last election-holding Middle East nations to give women the vote. The sole holdout now is Saudi Arabia, which holds all-male municipal elections only.

Though Kuwait has had a parliament since the 1970s, it was a long fight to open up elections to women. For six years, Muslim fundamentalists and conservative tribal lawmakers blocked attempts by the ruling emir to push through legislation. A suffrage bill finally passed in May 2005.

The sudden change in election scheduling is prompting Mrs. al-Abdali to “change techniques” in her campaigning. She is canceling visits to voter homes and instead concentrating on public seminars and media appearances to gain more exposure. She also is increasing her campaign work force.

Women had their first chance to run and vote for public office in April after a Municipal Council seat became vacant. Although turnout was lower than expected, one of the two females candidates finished second to the tribal nominee. More men than women voted for her.

Many Kuwaiti observers say this month’s election could begin rearranging the political map along the lines of reform rather than the tribal lines that have dominated its experiments in democracy.

That is partly because of the debate that prompted the emir to dissolve parliament. Sheik Sabah said public arguments over a Cabinet-proposed electoral reform bill had become too “charged” and were threatening the country’s stability.

The government proposed reducing the number of constituencies in the election from 25 to 10, but Islamists, liberals and independents demanded a deeper cut — to five constituencies — saying the larger precincts would minimize vote buying and voting for members of the same tribe or religious sect.

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