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Kuwaiti Women Fail to Win Seat in Landmark Parliamentary Election

Women candidates have failed to win a single seat in the Kuwaiti parliament in the first election where they were allowed to vote and run as candidates. But their political participation has energized Kuwaiti politics. Reformist candidates picked up several seats in parliament, and electoral reform is high on their agenda.

Before the election, prominent activist and economist Rola Dashti was seen as the woman with the best chance at winning a seat. In the end, she placed fifth in her district, missing out on a parliamentary seat by several thousand votes.

She knew when she embarked on her campaign that it would be an uphill battle, and she has already vowed to keep fighting until there are women in parliament.

"You see, we as women activists, always we are confronted by struggles. So we face opposition from extremist Islamists," she said. "We face corrupted people. And we just have to fight, we just have to fight. Nothing is easy when it comes to women."

Opposition to Dashti's high-profile candidacy was intense. Her campaign posters were vandalized, she was the target of a smear campaign, and her family insisted that she only eat food prepared by them, for fear she would be poisoned. Dashti thought that request was a bit over the top, but she agreed to do it just to ease her family's worries.

Although women failed to win a single seat in parliament, political analysts say women winning the right to vote has forced candidates to address women's issues, and given women a voice in Kuwaiti politics for the first time. Their participation has also revitalized the Kuwaiti political scene.

Outside a polling station in the Sabah As-Salem district, where many widows live in government-subsidized housing, young women chanted and sang in support of their favorite candidates all day, despite the oppressive heat.

Local election monitor Mohammad Mulla Juma marveled at their energy, and said women were far more enthusiastic about the election than men.

"See, this is what I was talking about," he said. "You won't see men doing any of these things these days!"

Kuwaiti voters may not have chosen to send any women to parliament, but they did choose some reformist candidates who are likely to keep pushing the electoral-reform issues that triggered this early election in the first place.

Kuwait's emir dissolved parliament five weeks ago and called elections a year ahead of schedule after a dispute over a plan to decrease the number of electoral districts from 25 to five.

May al-Nibari campaigned for her father, a progressive candidate who championed electoral reform.

"Five districts would at least minimize the corruption that is taking [place] in Kuwait," she said. "When you have an electoral district with 40,000 to 50,000 to 60,000 voters per district, it's not easy to buy votes. The effect of same family or family relations, or when the head of the family asks the whole family to vote for someone... that would be minimized, big-time. So that's the main idea, to minimize corruption."

Al-Nibari's father lost to two candidates who spent lavishly on their campaigns in a tiny district with only 5,000 voters. But a number of other reformists won their bids for office, and the election-reform issue is not expected to go away. When Kuwaitis go to the polls next time, the system could be quite different, and possibly give the female candidates a better chance of success.