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First Kuwaiti women win Parliament seats, but political deadlock may persist

The vote may do little to end volatility in Kuwait, which has seen three elections in three years.

By Liam StackCorrespondent / May 18, 2009



CAIRO – Kuwaitis made history on Saturday, sending four women to Parliament in an election many hoped would end years of political instability in the oil-rich Gulf kingdom.

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It was the first time women were able to win seats after winning the right to vote and run for election in 2005. Sunni Islamist candidates also lost ground in what appears to be part of a broader rejection of politics as usual by Kuwaiti voters, reports the Associated Press.

But observers say the election is unlikely to end the country's political volatility. It was the third time in three years that elections were called after a standoff between the Parliament and cabinet. (Read the Monitor's previous coverage of Kuwait's political standoff here.)

Kuwait’s ruler, Emir Sheikh Sabah al-Ahmad al-Sabah, said in a cable to the new female Parliament members – Maasouma al-Mubarak, Aseel al-Awadhi, Rula Dashti, and Salwa al-Jassar – that he was "very delighted at the great results achieved by Kuwaiti women and their deserved success in the elections,” reports the Kuwait Times.

"This is the will of change of the Kuwaiti people," Ms. Mubarak, a political science professor at Kuwait University, told The Times. "We hope the results will lead to political stability and help achieve the desired cooperation between Parliament and government."

That is a particularly tall order in Kuwait, which has a history of political deadlock. Kuwait’s Parliament is one of the strongest democratic bodies in the Arab world, but ultimate authority still lies with the emir, who apppoints the cabinet. Kuwait has seen six governments formed in less than four years.

In each case, the emir dissolved Parliament after members accused cabinet ministers of corruption or misconduct, reports The New York Times. Each time, he has reappointed his nephew Sheik Nasser al-Muhammad al-Sabah to the post of Prime Minsiter.

But Saturday's vote may not change the status quo.

Writing on Marc Lynch's influential Foreign Policy blog, F. Gregory Gause – a University of Vermont political science professor – argues that until the royal family is willing to allow Parliament more oversight of its members serving in Parliament, Kuwait is unlikely to move past its political crisis.

That is not a precedent the royal family is willing to set, argues Mr. Gause, despite the fact that the country’s perpetually-serving prime minister would probably survive a no-confidence vote in the 50-member Parliament.

“Unless the new prime minister, be it Shaykh Nasir al-Muhammad or another member of the family, is willing to play parliamentary politics, face confidence motions, and put together coalitions to defeat them, we will probably have a replay of the political crises that have led to the past three elections,” writes Gause.

Editor's note: The original version of this story misidentified the emir of Kuwait, Sheikh Sabah al-Ahmad al-Sabah.

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