Kuwaiti polls close as economy tops agenda

KUWAIT Sat May 17, 2008 6:56pm BST

1 of 17. Kuwait's Prime Minister Sheikh Nasser al-Mohammad al-Sabah (R) talks to a female voter at a polling centre in Rumaithiya, May 17, 2008. Kuwaitis voted in a parliamentary election on Saturday that they hoped would bring in fresh faces able to revive economic reforms to wean the country off its dependence on oil. Some 275 candidates are running for the 50-seat National Assembly, among them 27 women hoping for their first success after failing to win a single seat in 2006.

Credit: Reuters/Stephanie McGehee

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KUWAIT (Reuters) - Kuwaitis voted in a parliamentary election on Saturday that they hoped would bring in fresh faces able to bury political feuds and push through economic reforms.

Some 275 candidates were running for the 50-seat National Assembly, among them 27 women hoping for their first success after failing to win a single seat in 2006.

By 5 p.m. (3 p.m. British time), about 52.4 percent of voters had cast their ballots, according to figures issued by state new agency KUNA. Polls closed as scheduled at 8 p.m.

Kuwait's ruler, Sheikh Sabah al-Ahmad al-Sabah, dissolved parliament in March to end a standoff with the cabinet that had delayed economic reforms aimed at preparing Kuwait for the era when its oil reserves run out.

Nearly 362,000 Kuwaitis, more than half of them women, were eligible to vote and polling got off to a slow start on a hot, dusty weekend.

Women won the right to vote and stand for office in 2005 but face an uphill struggle attracting voters in a Gulf Arab country where many still believe a woman's place is in the home.

"I'm against women in parliament. I think everybody should stay in his place," said Samira al-Azm, a voter in her 50s.

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 quit in November.

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

"I expect many of the old assembly not to make it. Their performance was not good enough. They were pursuing their own interests, not solving Kuwait's problems," said Hanaa, 33.

REFORM HOPES

Kuwait's bourse, the second largest in the Arab world, rose after parliament was dissolved on hopes the new chamber would be more business-friendly but has since shed some of its gains.

"Investors now want to see some action," said Mustafa Behbehani, a director at Gulf Consulting Co in Kuwait.

The two-month campaign has been 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.

Candidates have also been detained on vote-buying allegations and under the new rules that have cut the number of constituencies from 25 to five, no one can predict who will win.

Analysts said the main Islamist and tribal blocs would do well in the enlarged districts where independents may struggle.

"They will enter the parliament. They are a big part of the society," said Amani Bouresli, a finance professor at Kuwait University. "But we expect a big change, almost 40-50 percent change, because of the five constituencies. There will a change in the faces but not in the formation of the assembly."

Kuwait, which sits on 10 percent of the world's oil, wants to wean its economy off energy exports and emulate the success of neighbours like Dubai and Bahrain which have transformed themselves into financial centres and tourist destinations.

Oil makes up over 90 percent of Kuwaiti government revenues and 55 percent of the gross domestic product in 2006, according to official data. That compares to 3 percent of GDP in Dubai.

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.

Many Kuwaitis are also fed up with a state which, despite its oil wealth, allows roads, hospitals and schools to crumble.

Reforms will be even harder to push through with global food prices rising and inflation at a record 9.5 percent in January.

(Editing by Lin Noueihed and Robert Woodward)

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