Kuwaitis head to the polls tomorrow for a second parliamentary election in eight months that opposition groups are boycotting and that is not expected to heal years of bitter divisions. The election-the sixth in as many years for the oil-rich Gulf state-follows a dull campaign that has failed to jolt apathetic voters into action.
At the heart of the issue is an amended electoral law that the constitutional court upheld in June, on the same day that it dissolved parliament and called the election. Most Islamist, nationalist and liberal opposition groups are boycotting the poll, a repetition of their stance at the last one in December. The move is in protest over the law which they charge allows the government to manipulate election results and subsequent legislation. “This election won’t bring political stability. It’s impossible,” liberal political analyst Anwar Al-Rasheed said.
“This election seems to have no color or taste… Major opposition groups are boycotting and people are frustrated and disinterested… The election will not bring any positive change or any improvement,” said Rasheed, who has monitored several Arab and international elections. The result has been a lacklustre campaign, with modest media coverage and small crowds attending rallies compared with the thousands they used to attract in the past. Not all opposition groups are boycotting the election this time, however, with the liberal National Democratic Alliance, key Bedouin tribes and a small number of opposition members taking part.
But analysts only expect a slight increase in voter turnout from December’s record low 40 percent as Saturday’s election comes during the Muslim fasting month of Ramadan and at the height of summer, when temperatures soar around 50 degrees Celsius (122 Fahrenheit). “Turnout is expected to be slightly higher than December but the general public mood is very negative… People are very frustrated at the situation in the country,” politics professor Abdulwahed Khalfan said.
Khalfan, who supports the amended electoral law, said people were disappointed with the performance of the now dissolved parliament which was “extremely loyal” to the government despite its poor performance. “The previous parliament gave very negative indications about Kuwait’s democracy. It became like a tool in the hands of the government,” he said. Khalfan said people are upset as most of the economic indicators are sliding, corruption is rising and prices are soaring. Kuwait was seen in neighboring Gulf states as a beacon of democracy with its vibrant parliament, introduced in 1962, and the freedom of speech.
But this image has been shattered by non-stop wrangling over the past seven years. Since May 2006, about a dozen cabinets have been formed and voters went to the ballot five times. “I think the root of the problem is the unwillingness of some sections of the Al-Sabah ruling family to see an elected parliament,” said the analyst Rasheed. Under the 1962 constitution, the emir, crown prince, prime minister and key ministerial posts are all from the Al-Sabah family, which has enjoyed unchallenged power for more than 250 years.
But in the past two decades, Kuwaitis and their political groups have started calling for democratic reforms to expand power-sharing in order to have an elected government and political parties. The opposition now says the 1962 constitution is no longer sufficient and that it has to be modified. “The constitution must be amended because the present one almost has no effect… The government must also be formed from parliament,” veteran opposition leader Ahmad al-Saadun told an opposition gathering this week.
Political science professor and former MP Hassan Jowhar expressed concern that what was happening in Kuwait is a conspiracy against democracy for economic interests. “It is feared that a systematic attempt is underway to make Kuwaitis hate democracy and political participation,” in order to seize public funds under the cover of “fake” development projects, Jowhar wrote in Al-Jarida newspaper. OPEC member Kuwait has posted budget surpluses of around $300 billion in the past 13 fiscal years, thanks to high oil prices, and is estimated to hold about $400 billion of foreign assets.