x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 26 July 2017

Kuwait returns to the polls despite opposition threat to boycott

The election has been billed by authorities as a fresh start after nearly two years of political turbulence during which four parliaments have been dissolved.

Voters in Kuwait head to the polls on Saturday to elect a new 50-member parliament for the second time in just eight months.

The election has been billed by authorities as a fresh start after nearly two years of political turbulence during which four parliaments have been dissolved.

But an opposition boycott and voter fatigue may keep at least some of Kuwait's 440,000 eligible voters home.

Kuwait has been locked in turmoil since November 2011, when protesters stormed the parliament in anger over a corruption scandal that eventually unseated the prime minister.

A series of grievances have galvanised the opposition alliances since, including most recently a debate about changes made to the voting system by Emiri decree last fall.

In December, a broad coalition of Islamist, tribal, liberal and youth groups led a boycott in protest against the changes, which reduce the number of votes each person can cast from four to one.

Critics argued that the new rules would prevent the formation of electoral coalitions and the boycott that followed pushed turnout down to a record low 40.3 per cent. Opposition lawyers also challenged the new voting system in court.

On June 16, the country's top judicial body ruled to uphold the electoral rules but forced the parliament that had been formed in December to be dissolved, triggering Saturday's ballot.

With the electoral debate settled in court, the government has argued that the vote is a chance to elect a parliament that will finally serve its full two-year term, bringing stability to a country whose economic development has been put on hold amid the political wrangling.

The vote is a "genuine opportunity to strengthen democratic practice in Kuwait and allow people to freely elect their representatives", the state news agency Kuna said this week.

But analysts argue that broader tensions over the balance of power between parliament and the ruling family could prevent stability in the longer term.

Kuwait's national assembly has the power to introduce legislation and to question ministers, but the prime minister and cabinet are selected by the Emir.

Opposition groups, led by strong youth coalitions, have called for the legalisation of political parties and an elected cabinet.

"The question is whether this election will be sufficient to fix a more serious problem of systemic decay and bolder demands for a restless and confident citizenry who need substantive representation and accountability," Larbi Sadiki, a senior lecturer in middle east politics at the University of Exeter, wrote in an analysis for Al Jazeera in advance of the vote.

Many Islamist and youth groups have vowed to boycott the election again. Liberal and tribal factions that boycotted in December, however, will field candidates.

Still, many analysts expect only a marginal rise in turnout from December.

Earlier this month, a poll conducted by Anova Consultants, a Kuwait-based market research firm, and published in local media, found that 31 per cent of voters had "lost faith" in the entire electoral process. Fifty-five per cent of the respondents said they would vote.

The appeal of Saturday's poll has also been dulled by its taking place during Ramadan for the first time ever.

Polling stations open at 8am and will remain open until 8pm, without a break for Iftar, according to state media. More than 400 candidates, including eight women, are vying for 50 seats. The ministry of information said results are expected by midnight tonight.

 

edickinson@thenational.ae