KUWAIT'S first parliamentary elections since the country's liberation from Iraq weren't truly democratic by Western standards, but it was a notable step forward in a region still dominated by autocrats. Opposition parties won 35 of the 50 seats and are positioned to challenge the country's hereditary ruler as never before.
Leading parliament's agenda will be an investigation of events surrounding Iraq's swift occupation of Kuwait in the summer of 1990. Critics of the emir, Sheikh Jabir al-Ahmad al-Jabir al-Sabah, charge that ineptitude and lax preparation made the tiny land easy prey for Saddam Hussein. Reformers will also press for disclosure of the government's use of the country's oil wealth.
But they'll proceed with caution. Probes into Kuwait's finances prompted the emir to disband the parliament in 1986. He still has that power, but the chances of such high-handed action are much reduced in Kuwait's present climate of democratic opening. During the campaign, candidates voiced criticisms that might have landed them in jail in the past. On election day, groups of Kuwaiti women - many of whom, like the new generation of candidates, are Western-educated - marched past polling places to protest
their exclusion from voting. Kuwait's tiny franchise, limited to 81,400 out of 606,000 citizens, is another issue the new parliament wants to tackle.
The country's victorious opposition is far from unified. It includes nearly as many representatives of Islamic groups as Western-schooled democrats. The Kuwaiti variety of Islamic politician, however, tends to be fairly moderate.
Kuwait's move toward democratic process has deeper roots than the emir's concerns about his unpopularity after the invasion. The country had a freer press than its neighbors and greater access to Western ideas even before the events of 1990 and '91. Pressures from Western allies who are essential to Kuwait's security have pushed the ruling family toward reform, counteracting pressures from monarchial neighbors who fear democratic experiments in their back yard.
The little oil sheikhdom may yet become a beachhead for democracy in the Gulf region.