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Mon 19 May 2008 09:52 AM

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Reforms doomed as Kuwait polls sees little change

New parliament will support existing power at expense of economic reforms, critics say.

Hopes for economic reform in Kuwait were dealt a blow by a parliamentary election in which Islamists and tribal alliances maintained their grip on power and women failed to win any seats, critics said.Twenty-eight members of the previous 50 seat National Assembly, beset by political squabbling and delays to legislation, were re-elected in Saturday's vote, according to figures carried by official media on Sunday.

Kuwait's stock exchange, the second-largest in the Arab world, edged down after the results were announced.

"Everybody already says this is an unstable assembly and will not continue for long," said Nabeela Al-Anjari, a women's activist and former candidate in the 2006 election.

"The majority will support the existing powers who will follow only their interests... We are heading towards a critical period of crises."

Ruler Sheikh Sabah Al-Ahmad Al-Sabah dissolved parliament in March to end a standoff with the cabinet that had stalled political life and delayed economic reforms.

The last assembly focused on questioning ministers over their policy, forcing several to resign. The Opec producer has yet to appoint an oil minister since the last quit in November.

Kuwait, which sits on a tenth of global oil reserves, wants to wean its economy off energy exports and emulate the success of neighbours such as Dubai and Bahrain, which have transformed themselves into financial centres and tourist destinations.

Amid the political wrangling, reforms such as a bill to attract foreign investment and another to create a financial regulator were left on the back burner.

Multi-billion dollar plans to explore some northern oil fields have also been delayed, partly because Islamist and tribal deputies objected the involvement of Western firms.

"It is true that some faces were changed, but in general the situation remained as it was before. The number of Islamists and tribes has even increased," said Ali Al-Baghli, a former oil minister and critic of parliament and government.

"If the same old pattern continues, the outcome will be the dissolution of the parliament again."

Some 21 Sunni Islamists won seats, about four more than in the last assembly. They include 10 members of the hardline Islamic Salafist movement, which roughly doubled its presence.

The failure of any woman to win a seat mirrored results in the last polls in 2006, but came as little surprise in a country where many still believe a woman's place is in the home.

Facing US pressure, Kuwait gave women the right to vote and stand for office in 2005, but the 27 female candidates had trouble making themselves heard in a field of nearly 300.

However, voters did re-elect two Shi'ite Muslim politicians who had been questioned for participating in a ceremony that highlighted sectarian tensions in the mainly Sunni country.

Shi'ite representation rose by one MP to five but the Sunni Islamic Constitutional Movement, Kuwait's version of the Muslim Brotherhood, won three seats versus six in the last house.

Liberal candidates won about seven seats, down one from eight, but with political parties banned and alliances often changing, it was hard to give an exact breakdown.

Kuwait's ruler must now appoint a new government and the new assembly is required to meet within two weeks. (Reuters)