Kuwaiti civil servant Nasser Ahmad 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. The middle-aged Ahmad 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, Ahmad 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, parliament had been dissolved five times by the emir due to political disputes and twice by courts over procedural flaws.
The most recent occasion the Amir exercised those powers was last month when he called a snap election following a crisis over petrol price hikes. Ahmad was among hundreds of men and women attending a rally held 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 say. 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 country 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 half a 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 has 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 multiparty system and an elected government to be led by the winning party. Disputes between the government and lawmakers have 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 the 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 have been jailed for doing so.
The dissolved parliament, branded as a rubber-stamp for the government, also adopted laws that criminalise wide-ranging online activities. This year’s campaign has however been dominated by economic issues after the government increased the prices of fuel and services.
With a citizen 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 Abdul Karim Al Kundari told an election rally.
An overwhelming majority of candidates have issued similar pledges. Like Ahmad, many voters are not optimistic about the ability of the next parliament to resolve the Emirate’s chronic political problems. “I have very little hope,” he said.
Source: Gulf News