Now, the question of what happens next is preoccupying voters and analysts, with the likelihood of some serious political battles ahead.

Professor Ghanim Al Najjar of Kuwait University's political science department, says the results show a major shift in Kuwaiti politics.

"There has been a general move towards the reformists, with women's votes being decisive in making this happen."

Thursday's parliamentary elections saw women allowed to vote and stand for office for the first time in the northern Gulf state's history.

Constituting some 57% of the electorate, thanks largely to rules denying military personnel the vote, women made up the majority of electors in many constituencies.

Expectations were high among many that at least one of 28 female candidates running would win, but none did. The top placed female candidate, Rula Dashti, came fourth in Kuwait City's 10th district.

Disappointing result

"I was expecting that they would do better than that," says well-known media commentator Yousef Al Jassem. "It was a noticeably disappointing result for women. In some districts, the woman candidate got less than 50 votes."

The victors in Thursday's polls now
face a string of tough debates

Al Najjar disagrees.

"Of the female candidates running, only two or three were serious - most of the rest were just making a point that women could take part. The ones who were serious did remarkably well for their first attempt."

The new parliament now faces a string of tough debates, while the reformists themselves, an umbrella group, may have difficulty keeping their coalition together.

The reformists, known as the orange movement, for their adoption of the colours of Ukraine's reform movement, stretch from conservative Islamists such as Waleed Al Tabatabaei, who voted against women getting the vote, to secular liberals who want a more Westernised Kuwait.

All were wearing the orange scarf of the reformists at their electoral celebrations in the early hours of Friday.

Chaotic

"It will be a bit of a mess, a bit chaotic," says young activist Monirah Al Eidan, who campaigned for female candidate Nabila Al Anjari.

"There are a lot of groups involved and as well as wanting change, they are against each other too."

The first issue the country's political system now faces is the choice of a new cabinet. Some 15 deputies are appointed to parliament by the emir and there are no political parties allowed.

Reformists want Sheikh Ahmad,
the energy minister, to go

Precedent also gives the ruling Al Sabah family the real say in who becomes part of the government.

The current prime minister, Sheikh Nasser al-Mohammed Al Sabah, a nephew of the emir, is likely to continue in the post, but some of his cabinet appointees may not.

Many reformists have threatened to boycott parliament if several key ministers - including the energy minister, Sheikh Ahmad al-Fahd Al Sabah and the information minister, Mohammad al-Sanousi - are reappointed.

The reformists accuse them of corruption and incompetence, charges strongly denied by the government.

Corrupt electoral practices

Yet with the reformers' hand now strengthened by the ballot, this threat has now become more serious.

"I expect a confrontation with the government," says Al Jassem. "The future of these ministers is a very hot issue."

Al Najjar says, however, that "if the emir reads the election results with the spirit of co-operation in mind, then they'll form a cabinet compatible with the result".

The emir faces pressure to make
Kuwait a constitutional monarchy

This may also mean the government conceding the reformists' main demand - the reduction of the number of electoral constituencies from 25 to five.

Reformists say this will help rule out vote buying and other corrupt electoral practices.

"There are then two options, if they get this through," continues Al Najjar. "Either they can dissolve parliament again and have a fresh election with the new, five-constituency system, or they can continue with the current system until the next elections in 2010, holding them under the new formula."

The campaign also saw strong criticism of the government - and by implication of the ruling Al Sabah family. Some openly questioned their role in the state.

Constitutional monarchy

Islamist deputy Al Tabatabaei says: "My vision of a future Kuwait is to change it into a constitutional monarchy.

"We Kuwaitis do not want to change the royal family"

Nabila Al Anjari,
candidate for parliament

"We want a system similar to the UK, where anyone can become prime minister."

Yet others see the Al Sabah family as a strong guarantee of democratic rights and freedoms.

Female candidate Al Anjari thinks the royal family gives citizens freedom and are very open with their ideas.

"We Kuwaitis do not want to change the royal family," she says.

The new parliament will also have to debate controversial economic issues, such as proposals for foreign oil companies to take a greater role in the country's energy sector and the introduction of taxation.

Kuwait's constitution forbids foreign ownership of oil and gas reserves in the country, and Kuwaitis do not pay tax.

"I think we'll see this hot summer continue," says Al Jasseem. "And I don't just mean climatically."