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A female Kuwaiti votes in elections on Saturday. The poll was largely boycotted by the opposition.
A female Kuwaiti votes in elections on Saturday. The poll was largely boycotted by the opposition.

Kuwait’s election highlights divisions and frustration

A polling station in the mostly pro-government, Rumaithiya district was buzzing with voters, but just a five-minute drive away in the tribal district of Salwa, the few voters there were vastly outnumbered by police. 

KUWAIT CITY // After months of frantic tweeting, grassroots organising, and protesting, boycott activist Said woke up on yesterday with little to do but wait.

Since October, he and his fellow activists have been encouraging voters here to boycott parliamentary elections, arguing that changes made to the electoral law while parliament was out of session make the ballot illegitimate.

As voters went to the polls yesterday - or did not - Said, nervously asked how the polling stations like. Fifty parliamentary seats were up for grabs in yesterday's election, but like many others, Said is concerned about just one outcome: turnout.

Rarely does a political crisis focus so precisely around one issue, but here in Kuwait a years-long struggle between the traditional elite and a rambunctious coalition of youth, tribal groups, Islamists, and liberals, has come down to just that: how many of Kuwait's 422,569 eligible voters would show up. Yesterday, the opposition did not. It said the voter turnout was very low.

The divide was visibly apparent, though official results were not expected until late on Saturday.

A polling station in the mostly pro-government, Rumaithiya district was buzzing with voters, all hailing the chance to elect a new parliament. But just a five-minute drive away in the tribal district of Salwa, the elementary-school turned polling station was empty; the few voters there were vastly outnumbered by police.

The dispute about voting yesterday was nominally over electoral rules. In October, the emir asked the government to amend the electoral law, reducing the number of votes that each citizen could cast in their district. Previously, Kuwaitis could pick four parliamentary candidates to fill 10 seats; in yesterday's poll they had just one vote.

The old system made it easier to form coalitions, trade votes and form alliances, said Fahad Al Azmi, a voter at the Salwa polling station. "Before, if I came to the election with four votes, I could vote for my candidate and have three votes left. I could ask others to also vote for my candidate."

But all sides say the stakes are higher. For the last half-decade, Kuwait has been locked in a tussle between an increasingly assertive elected parliament and an emir-appointment government. Amid the political turmoil, development projects have been put on hold, development has stalled.

"After 2005 and many parliaments, we have the result of more instability," said Salman Sabah Al Salen Al Hmoud Al Sabah, undersecretary of the ministry of information. "All programs and plans moving backward rather than forward."

Kuwait's youth have grown particularly frustrated with a rigid bureaucracy that they say runs on wasta, the arabic term for who you know, rather than procedure.

Boycotters say that the answer is constitutional reform, undertaken by an elected parliament. They are less concerned about the electoral change itself, for example, than how decision was made, when parliament was out of session.

"Cancelling the changes to the electoral law is the first step," said Ebrahim Alsahli, a law professor and poll boycotter. "We want an elected government and a full parliamentary system."

In recent months, opposition groups have called for the legalisation of political parties and the ability for MPs to name a cabinet, currently the purview of the emir. Many voters, however, worry about what would happen if the government were formed by an elected parliament. An assembly voted into office in February 2012 was dominated by tribal and Islamist MPs, who passed laws—such as an anti-blasphemy rule—that minorities such as Kuwait's Shiites and women fear would single them out.

"They are racist, they are corrupted, and we don't trust them," said Wael Al Ali, a 36-year-old Shiite.

Some of these minorities and pro-government groups now view the boycotted election as a chance to find their political voice.

The February 2012 parliament vote saw no women elected, for example, but Haila Al Mekaimi, a political scientist at Kuwait University, now expects at least three will take seats.

"Definitely women see this as a chance," she said. "We need a new elite with a new vision."

Kuwait's government has been adamant that, no matter the turnout, the parliament will convene and start tackling a multitude of questions awaiting them.

"They will lose," Mr Al Sabah said of the opposition boycotters. "Politically, if [the opposition] had 35 seats before, now only 10 or 12 will get to the parliament. They cannot control the assembly again."

The boycotters who waited anxiously yesterday said they will keep up pressure in other ways. On Friday, they convened one of the largest marches in Kuwait's history, and they say they can do so again.

"Are we going to stay on the streets? Of course we are," said Mr AlSahli. "The Kuwaiti people are not letting go of our freedom."

 

edickinson@thenational.ae

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