Kuwaitis head to polls hoping to stop austerity

AFP , Thursday 24 Nov 2016

Kuwaitis attend an election campaign meeting for the upcoming parliamentary election, in Kuwait City late on November 23, 2016. (AFP PHOTO)

Kuwaitis vote on Saturday for a new parliament they hope will halt austerity measures forced by falling oil revenues in the emirate, known for its cradle-to-grave welfare system.

With the return of opposition groups after a four-year boycott, the outcome of the snap elections is seen as crucial for shaping the domestic politics of the oil-rich Gulf state.

The seventh polls in a decade follow one of the most intense election campaigns seen in Kuwait, with opposition and pro-government candidates trading barbs over corruption and other allegations.

The opposition is being tipped to make a strong showing, with many members of the previous parliament expected to lose their seats, but is likely to fall well short of a majority.

"The return of opposition groups is the most significant development in this election," said analyst Ayed al-Manna.

"The opposition comeback could lead to a national reconciliation after years of bitter disputes," the political scientist told AFP.

Kuwait's parliament is considered the most powerful in the Gulf Arab states thanks to its legislative and monitoring capacities, but most of the political clout still lies with the ruling family.

Emir Sheikh Sabah al-Ahmad Al-Sabah, 87, dissolved the parliament in October after a dispute between lawmakers and the government over petrol price hikes of up to about 80 percent.

The government said the move was taken to reduce subsidies, boost non-oil revenues and plug the emirate's first budget deficit after 16 years of surpluses.

Economic issues dominated the campaign but other issues like political reforms and public freedoms were also highlighted by the 300 candidates who include 14 women.

Many running for office lashed out at the government for raising charges and fuel prices while failing to fight corruption. They have pledged to prohibit such hikes.

Almost all opposition groups boycotted the previous two elections, in December 2012 and July 2013, in protest after the government unilaterally amended the voting system.

Around 30 opposition candidates, including several former MPs, and a number of their allies are vying for places in the 50-seat parliament.

Political analyst Anwar al-Rasheed said he expects that "between 70 percent and 90 percent of the outgoing lawmakers will not be re-elected because the voters are very upset with their performance."

He said the dissolved assembly approved a number of highly controversial and repressive laws to control online freedom, DNA testing and extending preventive detention.

Several candidates charged those measures, along with the government crackdown on dissent, made Kuwait look like a police state.

Analyst Dahem al-Qahtani said he expects the opposition to win about 15 seats, with some eight supporters, making a very strong bloc in the next parliament.

"This will reduce the government and its supporters into a fragile majority, a major cause for political instability," Qahtani told AFP.

Under Kuwait's unique parliamentary system, political parties are banned and regardless of who wins in the polls, the next prime minister will be a senior member of the Al-Sabah ruling family, in power for more than 250 years.

Under the 1962 constitution, the emir, crown prince, prime minister and key ministerial posts are all members of the ruling family.

In addition, members of the cabinet are appointed from outside parliament but they enjoy rights almost equal to those of elected MPs, boosting the government grip on the house.

Kuwait, which sits on seven percent of the world's proven crude reserves, was seen in neighbouring Gulf states as a beacon of democracy with its vibrant parliament, introduced in 1962, and freedom of speech.

But this image has been shattered by non-stop wrangling over the past decade in the country, home to about 4.4 million people including 3.1 million foreigners.

During the campaign, several candidates accused some members of the ruling family of interfering in the election.

"Kuwaitis are paying the price of the disputes within the ruling family for controlling government," former MP Ahmad al-Qhudhaibi told a rally.

Short link: