"Another Arab State Edges Towards Full Democracy
Published: June 30, 2006, 11:29 am
By Patrick Goodenough
CNSNews.com International Editor
June 30, 2006
"(CNSNews.com) - Women in Kuwait voted and ran for office for the first time on Thursday, a development seen as pushing the Middle East another step closer to full participatory democracy.
Kuwaiti men and women voted for some 250 candidates -- including 28 women -- to fill 50 seats in the small Gulf state's 65-seat National Assembly (the remaining 15 are appointed by the country's emir.)
Full gender equality remains a way off, however: Women were forced to use separate polling stations, due to demands by Islamists who oppose women voting.
Results available by early Friday also showed that the women candidates appeared to be faring badly, despite the fact women comprise 57 percent of the electorate.
On the eve of the election, a non-governmental organization called the Women Cultural Social Society conducted a survey showing that although for most respondents a candidate's political platform was more important than gender, many would vote according to gender -- and most voters of both sexes would support men.
In the poll, about 44 percent of female respondents said they'd vote for candidate based on platform, not gender. But another 40 percent of women said they would vote for a man, compared to just around 15 percent who said they'd vote for a woman.
Kuwait's Arab Times daily quoted one woman candidate, Khalida Al-Kheder, as decrying the conduct of "conservative tribal women" whom she said had been bussed in in large numbers to vocally support male candidates.
Some analysts argued that female candidates had not had sufficient time to lay the groundwork for their campaigns.
Women were given the vote in May 2005, they did not expect to be able to use it for the first time until scheduled elections in 2007. But last month, Kuwaiti emir Sheikh Sabah Al Ahmad Al Sabah dissolved parliament and called an early election following a dispute between the government and opposition over electoral reforms.
Despite the historic suffrage decision, the campaign was dominated not by that but by calls for political reform and an end to official corruption.
Nonetheless, Women Cultural Social Society president Shaikha Al Nusf viewed the campaign positively on both counts.
"Clearly, women have come a long way in a short time," she said in a statement released through the NGO's U.S. partner, Freedom House.
"In the one month since the emir called for elections, women candidates and voters have made this election about issues rather than traditional affiliations."
Speaking during a visit to a polling station, Prime Minister Sheikh Nasser al-Mohammad al-Sabah said "the participation of women has added a new spirit to the march of democracy in Kuwait." Turnout was around 66 percent.
Suffrage for women in Kuwait leaves Saudi Arabia as the only country in the world that holds elections but does not allow women to vote. Women in Lebanon may only vote if they hold a stipulated educational qualification, not required for men.
(The United Arab Emirates and Brunei do not hold elections at all, and a number of countries that do fail to meet standards for free and fair democratic elections.)
State Department spokesman Adam Ereli said the U.S. congratulated Kuwait on the election, where participation by male and female voters was robust.
"The turnout demonstrates the universal value of democracy across cultures and
Mideast political commentator and Iranian author Amir Taheri says that despite Kuwait's small size, its election is important because of the effect it will have on politics in the broader Arab world.
"The exercise will help consolidate the idea of holding elections as a means of securing access to power, something new and still fragile in most Arab states," he said in a recent column.
Taheri also saw the Iraq situation as having played an important role in what he called the region's new interest in holding elections.
Arab elites saw how quickly Saddam Hussein's regime, the region's most powerful, had toppled, and observed that "an Arab regime without some mandate from the people is never more than a house of cards."
Arabs had also watched as millions of Iraqis lined up to vote, repeatedly, all within a couple of years, he said. "