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Little Hope for Polls to End Kuwait Political Chaos
Local Editor

Kuwaiti civil servant Nasser Ahmed sits in a luxurious tent, taking advantage of the perks of election campaigning in the emirate seen as a pioneer of democracy in the Gulf.

Kuwait national assembly

The middle-aged Ahmed has been worried that austerity measures initiated after oil prices fell sharply will gnaw away at his salary and benefits.

But despite those concerns, and the candidate's fiery speech, Ahmed enjoyed an opulent open-buffet dinner put on by the host -- a tradition in this wealthy Gulf state.

"I am just wondering if this one will finally bring stability," he said in reference to a series of political crises that have rocked the OPEC member since mid-2006.

During that decade, the parliament in the desert emirate had been dissolved five times by the emir due to political disputes and twice by courts over procedural flaws.

The most recent occasion the emir exercised those powers was last month when he called a snap election following a crisis over petrol price hikes.

Ahmed was among hundreds of men and women attending a rally put on in Kuwait City ahead of Saturday's election.

Candidates routinely spend millions of dollars on rallies, meals and even on alleged vote-buying, observers and analysts said.

Election banquets differ in quality and variety, with some hopefuls in tribal areas even slaughtering camels as a sign of generosity.

Hundreds of tents are erected all over the tiny emirate for candidates promoting their bid to enter the 50-member parliament.

Pledges range from promises to improve health services to complicated political issues, like urging an end to internal feuds within the ruling Al-Sabah family -- in power for 250 years.

In 1962, Kuwait became the first Gulf Arab state to draft a constitution and introduce parliamentary elections.

But more than 54 years later, the emir still enjoys tremendous powers and the ruling family holds major cabinet positions including that of the premier.

Often described as a half democracy, Kuwait's political system is part parliamentary and part presidential.

The elected parliament enjoys legislative and monitoring powers including grilling the premier and ministers and voting them out of office on an individual basis, but it cannot oust the entire cabinet.

Kuwait's democracy had been marred by disputes which intensified in the past decade with the opposition holding massive street protests demanding reforms that would effectively limit the ruling family's powers.

In 2014, an opposition alliance demanded broad reforms including a multi-party system and an elected government to be led by the winning party.

"I think the main cause of disputes is that the ruling family-led government essentially does not believe in democracy," said analyst Anwar al-Rasheed.

"Some government and ruling family quarters believe that issuing the 1962 constitution was a strategic mistake," said Rasheed, who heads the recently established Kuwait Liberals Movement.

Senior royals and government officials had repeatedly rejected such criticisms.

Rasheed said neighboring Gulf states had put pressure on Kuwait to suppress democracy.

"They simply want to see the Kuwaiti democratic experiment dead so it does not affect them," he told AFP.

Disputes between the government and lawmakers had been blamed for hindering development projects.

Despite its shortcomings, Kuwait's democracy offers relative freedoms of the press and expression.

Women have enjoyed full political rights since 2005, and have since been elected to parliament and appointed to the cabinet. There are 14 women running for office among 300 candidates.

Only the head of state is shielded against criticism in public, and several of his detractors including prominent former opposition lawmaker Mussallam al-Barrak had been jailed for doing so.

The dissolved parliament, branded as a rubber-stamp for the government, also adopted laws that criminalize wide-ranging online activities.

This year's campaign had however been dominated by economic issues after the government increased the prices of fuel and services.

With a native population of just 1.3 million people and pumping about 3.0 million barrels of oil per day, Kuwait has offered its citizens generous welfare conditions including high wages and no taxes.

The idea of changing that and taxing citizens or controlling their wages has had a major impact on society.

"I will propose a law in the next parliament to ban the government from reducing subsidies or touching the salaries of Kuwaitis," former lawmaker Abdulkarim al-Kundari told an election rally.

An overwhelming majority of candidates had issued similar pledges.

Like Ahmed, many voters are not optimistic about the ability of the next parliament to resolve the emirate's chronic political problems.

"I have a small hope only," he said.

Source: News Agencies, Edited by website team

22-11-2016 | 13:54


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