No major shifts expected as Kuwaitis go to the polls

The polls, which opened at 8:00 am (0500 GMT), are the first since the new emir, Sheikh Nawaf Al-Ahmad Al-Sabah, took office in September following the death of his half-brother, Sheikh Sabah al-Ahmad Al-Sabah.
Saturday 05/12/2020
A Kuwaiti woman voter arrives to cast her ballot at a polling station in Kuwait City during parliamentary elections on December 5, 2020. (AFP)
A Kuwaiti woman voter arrives to cast her ballot at a polling station in Kuwait City during parliamentary elections on December 5, 2020. (AFP)

KUWAIT CITY--Kuwaitis went to the polls on Saturday in a parliamentary election overshadowed by the coronavirus pandemic, with facilities laid on for citizens infected with the disease to vote in special polling stations.

The oil-rich emirate has enforced some of the strictest regulations in the Gulf to combat the spread of the virus, imposing a months-long lockdown earlier this year.

While some of those curbs have been eased, over-the-top campaign events that traditionally draw thousands for lavish banquets were absent from this year’s election, while masks remain mandatory and temperature checks are routine when venturing outdoors.

Infected people or those under mandatory quarantine are usually confined to home, with electronic wristbands monitoring their movements.

But in an effort to respect their right to vote, authorities designated five polling stations — one in each electoral district — for them to cast their ballots, among the 102 across the country.

Dulled-down campaign

Kuwait has a lively political life with a parliament elected for four-year terms that enjoys wide legislative powers.

Political disputes are often fought out in the open.

Parties are neither banned nor recognised, and many groups — including Islamists — operate freely as de facto parties.

But with more than 143,000 coronavirus cases to date, including 886 deaths, the election campaign has been toned down this year.

Kuwaiti Prime Minister Sheikh Sabah al-Khaled al-Sabah (R) arrives to cast his votes at a polling station in Kuwait City during parliamentary elections on December 5, 2020. (AFP)
Kuwaiti Prime Minister Sheikh Sabah al-Khaled al-Sabah (R) arrives to cast his votes at a polling station in Kuwait City during parliamentary elections on December 5, 2020. (AFP)

The polls, which opened at 8:00 am (0500 GMT), are the first since the new emir, Sheikh Nawaf Al-Ahmad Al-Sabah, took office in September following the death of his half-brother, Sheikh Sabah al-Ahmad Al-Sabah, at the age of 91.

But with the opposition weakened in recent years, no major political shifts are expected.

A few campaign banners hoisted over the streets have been the only physical reminder of the emirate’s political calendar.

Instead, this year’s campaign has mainly been fought on social networks and in the media.

Political tensions likely to continue

More than 567,000 Kuwaiti voters are eligible to choose among the 326 candidates, who include 29 women.

Ahmad Deyain, secretary general of the opposition Kuwaiti Progressive Movement, said he expected a lower voter turnout than previous years after the dulled-down campaign.

The usual themes are a constant though, from promises to fight corruption and plans to address youth employment, to freedom of expression, housing, education and the thorny issue of the “bidoon”, Kuwait’s stateless minority.

From 2009 to 2013, and especially after the Arab Spring revolts of 2011, the country went through a period of political turmoil, with parliament and cabinets dissolved several times amid disputes between lawmakers and governments dominated by the ruling Al-Sabah family.

“Kuwait is still undergoing a political crisis since 2011, and that page has not yet turned,” Deyain said.

“There are still disputes over the electoral system and mismanagement of state funds.”

Deyain said he expected some lawmakers in the new assembly to be “more dynamic” in trying to resolve some issues.

The new emir has called for unity to face challenges at home and in a region experiencing heightened tension between Kuwait’s larger neighbours Saudi Arabia and Iran.

Late ruler Sheikh Sabah al-Ahmad in 2012 broke the hold of opposition groups on parliament by using executive powers to amend the voting system, sparking large protests.

Under the old electoral system, voters were allowed to cast ballots for up to four candidates, which the opposition says allowed alliances that partly made up for the absence of political parties, which are officially barred.

The system introduced in 2012 allows votes for only a single candidate, which the opposition says makes alliances difficult.

Kuwaiti opposition figures have proposed electoral reforms and a pardon for dissidents, many in self-exile, to the new emir.

“There have been some reforms in the judiciary and the Emiri Diwan,” or court, said a Kuwaiti politician who asked not to be named. “We heard echoes of more reforms after elections.”

The election results are expected to be announced on Sunday morning.

Kuwait was the first Gulf Arab state to adopt a parliamentary system in 1962. Women were granted the right to vote and to stand for election in 2005.

Economy tops list of worries

The new parliament will need to make decisions on a number of matters, perhaps none more important than Kuwait’s economy.

This fall, the ratings agency Moody’s downgraded Kuwait for the first time in its history. The finance minister warned the government soon wouldn’t be able to pay salaries.

Kuwait’s national bank said the country’s deficit could hit 40% of its gross domestic product this year, the highest level since the financial devastation of the 1990 Iraqi invasion and subsequent Gulf War.

With crude oil prices just above $45 a barrel, other nearby Arab states took on debt, trimmed subsidies or introduced taxes to sustain their spending. Kuwait, however, did none of that.

That’s not to say Kuwait will be begging for aid at international summits anytime soon.

The Kuwait Investment Authority holds assets of $533 billion, according to the Las Vegas-based Sovereign Wealth Fund Institute, making it the world’s fourth-largest such fund.

The problem is Kuwait has no legal framework to deficit-spend beyond its current limit of $33 billion. It needs the country’s parliament to grant approval.

But lawmakers likely will face a popular backlash as the public fears the money will be lost to corruption amid a series of high-profile cases shaking the country.

Kuwait has the world’s sixth-largest known oil reserves. The country also hosts some 13,500 American troops, many at Camp Arifjan south of Kuwait City, which is also home to the forward command of US Army Central.