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Women vote and run in Kuwaiti poll for first time

Written by: Staff
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KUWAIT, June 29 (Reuters) Kuwait holds parliamentary elections today in which women can run for office and cast votes for the first time in a national poll in the oil-producing Gulf Arab country.

The poll was called after Kuwaiti Emir Sheikh Sabah al-Ahmad al-Sabah dissolved parliament last month following a standoff between the government and opposition over electoral reforms.

The opposition accuses the government, a close US ally, of trying to turn parliament into a rubber-stamp assembly. But the government says it is committed to reform.

The opposition is a loose alliance of 29 pro-reform former parliamentarians and Islamist and liberal groupings, tolerated in a country that bans parties.

Parliament passed a law in May 2005 giving women the right to vote and stand as candidates in elections for the 50-seat National Assembly.

More than 250 candidates are standing, including 28 women determined to make headway despite daunting odds against any female candidate beating seasoned male opponents, many of them former parliamentarians seeking re-election.

''The participation of women in the elections makes this a historic day for Kuwait,'' said U.S.-educated female candidate Fatima al-Abdali. ''The success of any woman will be a victory for all Kuwaiti, Gulf and Arab women.'' Many experts say voting by conservative groups such as Islamists and powerful tribes will hurt the chances of women candidates.

Female candidates themselves believe one or two of them could win since women make up 57 percent of the 340,000 eligible voters.

''I've dreamt about this for so long,'' said a 35-year-old female candidate, Naeemah al-Hay. ''Women are allowed to try to put themselves in the assembly. Whether they succeed or not, it will be a change.'' But most experts see only a small chances of success for female candidates given their political inexperience, tough competition from male candidates with established voter bases and the limited time they had to prepare campaigns.

The opposition, labelling the poll as a ''battle of good and evil'', have also accused some cabinet ministers and ruling family members of sponsoring corrupt practices such as vote-buying. The government dismisses the charge.

''It's time to get back our dreams ... to get a parliament that honours Kuwait,'' said opposition figure Abdullah Naibari.

Reuters SK VP0625

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