Kuwaitis vote in poll hit by opposition boycott, protests

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 01 December, 2012, 4:28pm
UPDATED : Saturday, 01 December, 2012, 4:29pm

Kuwaitis voted on Saturday in a parliamentary election overshadowed by an opposition boycott, protests over a change to the polling rules and a festering political crisis in the US-allied oil producer.

The election is the second this year in the Gulf Arab state, where a series of assemblies have collapsed under the weight of a power struggle between elected MPs and the cabinet, appointed by the prime minister who is chosen by the ruling emir.

Tens of thousands of Kuwaiti activists marched on Friday, urging people not to vote in protest against the change to electoral rules which they say will skew the outcome in favour of pro-government candidates.

Emir Sheikh Sabah al-Ahmad al-Sabah used emergency powers in October to cut the number of votes per citizen to one from four, saying the change would fix a flawed system and maintain security and stability.

“I think my country needs to experience this new method of voting,” government ministry official Dalal al-Aboud said at a ladies’ voting station in an upmarket district on the edge of Kuwait City.

“The old system was unfair for people in some areas of Kuwait. I think it will be better if we try this new method, then we judge if it is fair or not,” the 28-year-old said, adding she respected the right of people to boycott the poll.

Opposition figures have already said they will not stand because of the voting rules change ordered by the emir, whose family has ruled for 250 years and dominates the cabinet.

Polls opened at 8am, and about 423,000 Kuwaitis are eligible to cast ballots to choose the 50 members of parliament. Voters trickled into stations set up in about 100 schools around the country. Polls close at 8pm.

University professor Alia Shuaib said women, who received the right to vote in 2005, were still finding it an uplifting experience to cast their ballots. “I believe it is my duty as a woman and as a Kuwaiti national to vote,” she said.

“It is still fresh for us as women. It is a pleasure to get up, dress, get my papers and vote. It is breathtaking,” the 45-year-old said. “I believe every person should vote and put the right people in parliament. We want educated people, the best. We want legitimate and ethical people,” she said.

Turnout crucial

Past turnouts in elections have been around 60-80 per cent, but analysts said the numbers could be lower this time, given the boycott and exhaustion after the long string of elections.

“Voter apathy is to be expected, after all this is not only the second parliamentary election of this year, but elections were also held in 1992, 1996, 1999, 2003, 2006, 2008, and 2009. Election fatigue is understandable,” IHS Global Insight analyst Jamie Ingram wrote in a note.

Organisers of Friday’s march said it was the largest in Kuwait’s history and a sign of deep public discontent with the change to the voting system.

The opposition, a disparate collection of Islamists, liberals and populist politicians, argue the change makes it more difficult for them to form alliances.

In the past, candidates have called on supporters to cast their additional ballots for allies. They say such informal affiliations are crucial due to a ban on political parties.

The opposition won around two-thirds of the National Assembly in February and formed a bloc that put pressure on the government, forcing two ministers from office.

That parliament was dissolved after a June court ruling, in the latest stage in a political standoff which has stalled investment programmes and frozen reforms in the country.