As Kuwaitis prepared to go to the polls Saturday to elect a new parliament, the third in three years, Aseel al Awadhi geared up for a round of last-minute campaigning.
Ms. Al Awadhi has become a political celebrity in Kuwait, with polls showing she has a good chance of becoming the first female to be elected to Kuwait’s 50-seat parliament.
Women were given the right to vote and run for office in 2005. So far, they haven’t been able to win a seat in this conservative Muslim society.
But this year, 19 women are running, out of 280 candidates, for Kuwait’s 50 seats.
The elections come amid political and economic paralysis in the tiny emirate, a staunch U.S. military ally and one of the world’s biggest oil exporters.
In March, Kuwait’s ruler, Sheikh Sabah Al Ahmad Al Sabah, dissolved parliament for the second time in a year, blaming parliamentarians for hindering the nation’s economic progress. Lawmakers had pushed to question the prime minister, a royal family member. The ruling family considers the procedure degrading, and the government has in the past dissolved itself to avoid such a humiliation.
The political gridlock has coincided with an economic wallop to the sheikhdom. While Kuwait is rich in oil, its stock market has tanked amid the global economic crisis. And the economic crisis has fed the political deadlock. Some parliamentarians have pushed big rescue measures, such as a proposal to erase all consumer debt.
The government has resisted, instead pushing its own, limited bailout for financial institutions. That has fed criticism of the royal family, which — despite allowing elections and parliament — retains much of the trappings of an absolute hereditary monarchy, including the exclusive right to name the government.
Speculation has swirled that if the deadlock between lawmakers and the ruling-family-backed cabinet continues in the new parliament, the emir could suspending parliament altogether to push through needed reform.
Especially critical of the government recently has been an Islamic bloc of parliamentarians, who have managed to boost their seats in recent elections. They have increasingly challenged the ruling Sabah family, at times alleging corruption and a lack of transparency. The royal family has brushed off the criticism.
In this sea of political gridlock, Ms. Al Awadhi is seen by supporters as a calming force, willing to work with the ruling family, but also to pursue ways to revitalize Kuwait’s economy and education system. Two local, independent polls show Ms. Al Awadhi leading in her district, ahead of her conservative rivals.
At a recent campaign rally, fully veiled women sat alongside others unveiled in colorful dresses. Male supporters lounged outside, drinking Arabic coffee. Stylish, the 38-year-old Ms. Al Awadhi doesn’t wear a headscarf. She received her Ph.D. from the University of Texas, Austin and is a popular professor at Kuwait University, where she teaches philosophy and critical thinking.
“She’s the ‘in’ thing in Kuwait,” says Fatema Masoud, a 28-year-old volunteer for Ms. Al Awadhi’s campaign. “We need a good education and jobs, and we need someone to help us.”