KUWAIT CITY (AP) – Voters in Kuwait lined up Saturday to vote in landmark parliamentary elections that could substantially change the legislative body of this tiny, oil-rich Gulf emirate following electoral reforms to reduce corruption and vote buying.
The elections come after Kuwait’s ruler, Sheik Sabah Al Ahmed Al Sabah, dissolved parliament in March in the wake of increasingly acrimonious relationship between the Cabinet, appointed by the ruler, and the 50-man legislative body.
The hope is that the new parliament will be more representative and be able to better work with the government’s ministers.
Sawsan al-Mahmeed, a 45-year-old civil servant, said she was tired of the “cycle of crises between the two powers” and was voting for a change.
Part of that big change in Kuwait’s politics is also the role of women, who starting in 2005 can now run for office.
While none were elected in the 2006 contests, hopes are high this time around for the 27 women vying for office together with 248 men.
“We need to try women, we have to give them a chance,” said al-Mahmeed, as she left the women’s-only polling station, wearing large fashionable sunglasses and a white pants suit. Behind her long lines of women could be seen waiting to vote.
Al-Mahmeed, who does not wear the Islamic headscarf common to most women in this conservative country, said she gave two of her four votes to female candidates.
Women candidates, however, still face an uphill battle in gaining the trust of most voters in this nation where parliamentarians are usually elected along tribal and family lines.
“We are barely convinced of men in parliament, let alone women,” said Mona Mohammed before she went in to tick the names of four men on the ballot. “Maybe because we see women as less responsible and more emotional,” said the 42-year-old civil servant.
Jamal Rashed, 48, said he wanted to vote for a woman but he didn’t think any of them were qualified. “Charisma also affects one’s decision and the women still lack it,” the merchant said as he left a men’s polling station.
For the past two years, lawmakers and the government ministers have been unable to work together, prompting Kuwait’s emir to dissolve the body twice since 2006.
Repeated grillings of Cabinet ministers and threats to impeach them paralyzed politics and halted development plans that include imposing taxes and allowing foreign companies into the state-owned oil sector.
While votes of no confidence are acceptable parliamentary tools in other democracies, they are considered a challenge to the authority of the ruling family which tries to pre-empt most of them by resignations, reshuffles or just dissolving the parliament.
What may make this new parliament different however, is the reduction of electoral districts from 25 to just five to defeat attempts at vote buying.
The elections Saturday will be the first in the country under the new rules, which were pushed through after widespread protests in the country. Each of the five districts sends 10 representatives to parliament, and each person can vote for four candidates in a district.
Reformists believe larger districts will make it harder for candidates to buy their victory because they would have to pay a much larger number of people to get the necessary amount of votes.
“Some in the district were known for buying votes, this time they didn’t run,» said Rashed. When precincts were smaller, around 2,000 votes could win a seat, but more than triple this number is now needed.
Reformists also hope the larger districts will reduce the number of candidates who are elected by a small number of voters exclusively from their tribe or sect, a common occurrence under the old system.
Authorities have clamped down on illegal primaries tribes carry out to choose candidates for elections, at one occasion using tear gas to disperse angry crowds.
One of the key political issues has been what to do with the soaring revenue the government is enjoying from record oil prices. Many candidates are pushing the government to use the influx of cash to pay off the consumer debt of Kuwaiti citizens.
The Cabinet instead had pushed to use the money for development projects and to privatize the economy, an unpopular agenda in a country where the 1 million citizens have been spoiled by a cradle-to-grave welfare system. Kuwait first elected a parliament in 1963.