KUWAIT CITY – Women went to the polls Thursday for the first time in Kuwait, voting for parliament members in an election that has shaken up politics-as-usual in the conservative oil-rich emirate.
Women, who won the right to vote and run for office last year, went to separate polling stations from men. There are 27 female candidates among the 249 people running in the election, and women make 57 percent of voters.
"It feels like a wedding day," said Salwa al-Sanoussi, a 45-year-old house wife, one of the first to arrive at a women's polling station in Dahyia, one of Kuwait's wealthiest areas. She wore black and covered her hair with a matching headcover.
Candidate representatives waited for women, carrying umbrellas to shade them from the scorching sun as they walked from their chauffeured cars to the building. They also presented them with roses and cards bearing the name of their candidate.
Inside the school, four lines of women formed in the first hour of the vote, an indication that the turnout might be heavy.
Polls closed at 8 pm after 12 hours of polling, with lines still present at some stations. Those waiting were allowed to cast their ballots. There were no immediate figures on turnout.
Liberal opposition figure, Khaled al-Mutairi, was pleased with voter interest, saying that overall turnout "exceeded expectations" and that it would be decisive in shaping Kuwait during the next four years.
"We will either go in the direction of reform or corruption," said al-Mutairi, the secretary general of the National Democratic Alliance, a staunch proponent of electoral reform.
With Thursday's vote, Saudi Arabia is now the only Arab country that holds elections but doesn't allow women to vote.
Even fundamentalist Muslims who opposed giving women the right to vote have campaigned for their support in the weeks heading up to Thursday's election.
But the entry of women is not the only new twist in the election. The vote has sparked a surprisingly vocal campaign for reform in Kuwait, where the ruling Al Sabah family heads the government and has a strong influence over politics.
During the campaigning, reformist candidates — who include Islamic fundamentalists and secular activists — spoke out harshly against corruption, accusing ministers and even members of the ruling family of mismanagement and wasting state land.
At one point, the emir, Sheik Sabah Al Ahmed Al Sabah, expressed his "deep hurt and dismay" over what he called the "low level of dialogue," in the campaigns — though the government did not attempt to clamp down on it.
Ali Thnayyan al-Ghanem, who heads the powerful Chamber of Commerce and Industry, waited with a group of other voters to cast his ballot at a men's polling station. "We are proud of this day that proves there is democracy in this country," he said. "I am optimistic reformists will win a large number of seats," added the 78-year-old with a smile on his face. His son Marzouk is running.
Outside, where morning temperatures reached 108 degrees Fahrenheit, candidates set up stands with chilled bottles of water, juices and sandwiches.
Parliament has long been long broken down along the lines of tribal affiliation, Islamists and liberals, but many expect now it will be reshaped more along the main issues of pro-reformists and government supporters.
All 50 seats of the parliament are up for grabs in Thursday's vote. There are over 340,000 eligible voters, 57 percent of them women. Polls are open for 12 hours, and the first results are expected late Thursday.
The debate was sparked by a dispute over redrawing the country's 25 electoral precincts that prompted Sheik Sabah to dissolve the legislature in late May and call new elections.
The Cabinet had sought to cut the number of constituencies to 10, but a bloc of 29 lawmakers — backed by thousands of young men and women who demonstrated in the streets — wanted them reduced to five, saying that would make it almost impossible to buy votes.
They accused the government led by the Al Sabah family of procrastination and lack of seriousness about political reform.
Reformist lawmakers stormed out of the house when the Cabinet introduced its 10-contituency proposal, egged on by Kuwaitis in the gallery, many of whom wore orange T-shirts and waved orange balloons.
Young demonstrators adopted the color, which became synonymous with political reform.
However, electoral reform was not a major concern for all. Twenty-two year-old Gizlan Dashti voted for men who promised to provide jobs for young Kuwaiti graduates. "There are issues more important than electoral precincts," said the university student who was wearing jeans and a red head scarf.
"Before, election day did not mean anything to us," she said. "Now, women have a say."
The election campaign marks a new stage in the U.S. ally's tentative moves toward greater democracy.
Emirs have dissolved parliament four times since it was created in 1962, leaving the country without a legislature for years at times. Each time, dissolution has come after lawmakers became too critical in attempts to remove government ministers.
But parliament has shown it can be forceful in its disagreements with the government. For years, Islamists and conservative tribal members of parliament were able to hold up the emir's moves to give women the right to vote — until finally a bill was pushed through the legislature in May 2005.
Lawmakers even dared to raise worries — albeit quietly — over the succession of the emir, one of the most taboo subjects in the country when the previous emir, Sheik Jaber, and his appointed successor were both ailing. When Sheik Jaber died in January, parliament removed the planned successor and Sheik Sabah, the late emir's half-brother, stepped in.