Women's political rights in balance in Kuwaiti voting

New Parliament will face fierce battle over suffrage


KUWAIT -- Kuwaitis voted yesterday in what may be the country's last all-male elections, after a campaign dominated by a heated national discussion of whether it is time to allow women political rights.

Many candidates for seats in Kuwait's 50-member Parliament have vowed to block a decree that would allow Kuwaiti women to vote in the next election, expected in 2003. The decree must be approved by the new Parliament, which is expected to convene by mid-July.

Some women, including Masoumah al-Mubarak, a leading political activist, have already declared their candidacies for the next election, and most believe that the all-male Parliament that was being elected yesterday will ultimately bow to the emir's wishes. But many experts warn that the parliamentary battle could be fierce, with most of Kuwait's powerful Islamic political groups and the leaders of the country's traditional tribes on record as opposing the idea of women voting and holding office.

Kuwait is the only Arab Persian Gulf state with an elected Parliament, and a move to allow women to vote and hold office would put it even further ahead of its neighbors in allowing equal political rights. While the royally appointed government maintains the upper hand, politics in Kuwait are traditionally free-wheeling and raucous.

Mubarak, who with other Kuwaiti women convened a news conference last week to address the issue, said she was "hopeful that sufficient positive-thinking males who support women's rights fully will be elected."

The emir's decree came as a surprise to most people here, and its announcement has energized support for Islamic and tribal candidates who form the country's largest opposition bloc. Some candidates have pointed to the decree by the emir, Sheik Jaber al-Ahmad al-Sabah, as an indication that Kuwait's government may be out of step with the more conservative sentiments of most Kuwaitis.

The emir dissolved Parliament in May, 17 months ahead of schedule, after its relationship with the government became so distressed that little business could be done. But if the predictions of most experts here hold true, yesterday's election is unlikely to heal the rift.

Most people expect that opposition members will again dominate Parliament, and a report by the independent Al-Shall Economic Consultants predicted that the opposition will emerge from the election with an even stronger hand.

Pub Date: 7/04/99

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