- The Washington Times - Thursday, June 29, 2006

Parliamentary elections in Kuwait yesterday were historic, not only because women voted and appeared on the ballot for the first time, but because democratic reform in the small, oil-rich state depends on the outcome, analysts and reformist groups said.

“A lot of people didn’t expect many women to come out and vote, but they are so active and excited. The dream finally came true,” said Tahani Al-Terkate, a spokeswoman for the Kuwaiti Embassy in Washington, who said she wished she could be home to participate in the vote.

On the ballot, 28 women appeared among 253 candidates competing for 50 seats in the first parliamentary election since women gained the vote in May 2005.

“I think it will make a big difference because our statistics say 57 percent of eligible voters are women,” Ms. Al-Terkate said. “We will change the democratic map of Kuwait.”

As of last night, state television had released only participation statistics for the Kuwait City suburb of Qibla, where 66 percent of female and 77 percent of male voters went to the polls, the Associated Press reported.

Last month, Emir Sheik Sabah Al Ahmed Al Sabah disbanded parliament and called for new elections because lawmakers clashed with his Cabinet over democratic reform, dividing candidates largely into reformist and conservative camps.

Nathan Brown, a senior researcher at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, said that because of this conflict, voters in Kuwait, a U.S. ally, were not just voting for candidates, but possibly for a new electoral system.

In order to curb accusations of widespread vote buying and tribal influence, reformist groups within parliament have called for the government to cut electoral districts from 25 to five.

The Cabinet proposed cutting the number of districts to 10, and some members of parliament accused it of losing its commitment to reform, Mr. Brown said.

“The election results will determine the makeup of the new parliament and reveal any majority or consensus that might be formed with regard to electoral redistricting,” a Western diplomat in Kuwait said in an e-mail, on the condition of anonymity.

Kenneth Katzman, a congressional researcher and former Kuwait election monitor, said the winner of the struggle for a parliamentary majority among the rival blocs — there are no political parties in Kuwait — could affect U.S. business interests.

“The reformers in parliament have blocked foreign oil deals because they consider it a sellout of Kuwait’s resources. If a parliament friendly to the government gets voted in, these deals could get approved,” Mr. Katzman said.

“Project Kuwait” — which the U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA) said was a $7 billion, 25-year plan to increase production in five of Kuwait’s northern oil fields — is one such deal that hangs in the balance. Several U.S. oil giants, including Chevron Corp. and Exxon Mobil Corp., were interested in the deal, which stalled because of parliamentary opposition, the EIA said.

“I guess in some ways, more pro-government people in parliament could be a good thing for the U.S.,” Mr. Katzman said.

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