KUWAIT CITY (AFP) — Radical Sunni Islamists made a strong showing in Kuwait's legislative election and minority Shiites gained one more seat, reflecting heightened sectarian sentiment and conservatism in the oil-rich Gulf state.
Women, despite numbering more than half the electorate, again failed to enter parliament, according to official results released on Sunday.
The hardline Islamic Salafi Alliance and its allies won at least 10 seats in Saturday's poll, almost twice their strength in the previous chamber.
Sunni and Shiite Islamists grabbed more than half of parliament's 50 seats.
Sunni Islamists won 21 seats, four more than their number in the previous parliament which was dissolved by Kuwait's ruler in March after a standoff between the government and MPs.
The moderate Islamic Constitutional Movement, the political arm of the Muslim Brotherhood, however saw its strength cut by half to three MPs.
The number of lawmakers from the Shiite Muslim minority increased by one to five.
All elected Shiite MPs are Islamists, including two members of the previous parliament who took part in a controversial rally in March to mourn Imad Mughnieh, the slain military commander of Lebanon's Hezbollah.
The rally triggered sectarian tensions between Shiites and Sunnis. The government cracked down on Shiite activists amid Sunni protests that they had mourned a militant accused of hijacking a Kuwaiti plane in the 1980s.
"The Mughnieh issue has certainly increased sectarian polarisation and tension in the country, benefiting radicals on both sides," political analyst Mohammad al-Ajmi told AFP.
Shiites constitute one-third of the native population of just over one million.
Liberals and their allies won seven seats, one fewer than in the previous house, while the nationalist Popular Action Bloc led by veteran opposition figure and three-time speaker Ahmad al-Saadun took four seats, down one.
Political analyst Saleh al-Saeedi said he believes the polls, conducted on a new electoral system with broader constituencies, will help lay the ground for establishing political parties after most candidates campaigned as part of a group in order to increase their chances of winning.
"I think this will make it easier for the government to deal with political blocs rather than individuals. The next period will witness progress towards political parties," Saeedi said.
Political parties are banned in Kuwait, but various groupings operate as de facto parties.
Women, who were contesting the election for only the second time, failed to win any seats, underlining the conservative nature of Kuwaiti society.
Female voters made up 55.4 percent of the 361,700 eligible voters in Saturday's early election, but only about half of them cast their votes, according to turnout figures. Total turnout was 68 percent.
Twenty-seven female candidates were in the running, but with women standing for election for only the second time, their limited experience in campaigning was seen as one of the reasons for their poor showing.
Analysts say women in the Gulf region generally tend to follow the lead of their families and tribes when casting their ballot.
Kuwaiti women had also failed to make a breakthrough when they voted and stood for office for the first time in the June 2006 legislative ballot.
Twenty-two new faces will enter the parliament, mostly from tribal areas. Voters have said they wanted change in a bid to end political feuding and put the wealthy OPEC state back on the track of economic development.
Under the constitution, the cabinet will resign within two days and Emir Sheikh Sabah al-Ahmad al-Sabah will ask the current premier or another member of the ruling family, as is the norm in Kuwait, to form a new cabinet before the new parliament holds its first session by the end of May.
At least one member of the 16-strong cabinet must be an elected MP. Unelected ministers become ex-officio members in parliament and enjoy the same voting rights, thus raising the house membership to 65.
Accordingly, the Islamists' victory will not translate into a majority in the assembly.
Parliament, elected for a four-year term, has legislative and monitoring powers and can vote ministers out of office but it cannot bring down a whole cabinet.
Kuwait says it sits on 10 percent of global oil reserves and pumps around 2.5 million barrels per day. It has amassed 250 billion dollars of assets thanks to high oil prices.
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