Kuwaitis doubt new vote will end political crisis


Kuwait’s pro-West ruler Sheikh Sabah al-Ahmad al-Sabah dissolved the Islamist-dominated parliament in March, for the second time in a year, to end a protracted standoff with the government that has hindered some legislation for years.

Kuwait’s bourse, the Arab world’s second-largest, rallied on the move to hold the election, as investors hoped it would help the cabinet push through a $ 5-billion economic stimulus package which was opposed by some lawmakers.

Despite optimism that the new parliament could be different, Kuwaitis fear the same old faces will return with the same troubles that have prompted repeated cabinet reshuffles and resulted in three elections in as many years.

As a first test, the new assembly has to vote on the stimulus package which is seen crucial to help the financial sector overcome the global financial crisis.

“If the Islamists come back, the same thing will happen and parliament will be dissolved again,” said Abu Ahmad, a voter in his fifties, while watching the bourse index.

Kuwait, the world’s fourth-largest oil exporter, lags behind other Gulf states such as the United Arab Emirates, Qatar and Bahrain, who have transformed into commercial, financial and tourist centres that attract foreign investors.

The political instability has for long delayed much-needed economic reforms and major projects as deputies spend much of the year blocking deals or asking to question ministers who would rather resign than face public scrutiny.

”There are many projects announced since the 1960s but nothing materialised. They are just archived in government offices,” voter Hossam al-Sharaf said after listening to an hour-long rally by Shi’ite candidate Saleh Ashour.

Badriya Maqaseed, a female voter, agreed. “We need a radical change. Since the 1960s we have had one university, we should have more. Kuwait used to be called the Pearl of the Gulf.”

Kuwait’s protracted crisis led Moody’s Investors Service to say in March that it may cut the country’s sovereign rating for the first time since it started rating Kuwait in 1996.

The cabinet resigned in March to avoid Prime Minister Sheikh Nasser al-Mohammad al-Sabah, a nephew of the emir, being questioned by lawmakers, who have tried to exercise their rights in Kuwait’s political system to the full.

The ruling Sabah family ultimately has more powers than the assembly. Deputies are elected as individuals and operate in loose political blocs to get round a ban on political parties.

Analysts say the new parliament is likely to be dominated yet again by Islamists and tribesmen, who oppose trimming back Kuwait’s huge welfare state despite financial turmoil that forced the Gulf Arab state to rescue a major bank last year.

“Islamists can lose some seats but it won’t be enough to change the general mood in the parliament. They will gain in the elections,” political analyst Shafiq al-Ghabra said.

Kuwaiti women, who have never won a parliamentary seat, hope voters fed up with repeated political crises will give female candidates a chance to prove themselves in Saturday’s poll.

Three women have been appointed as ministers since Kuwait passed a 2005 law granting women the right to vote and run for office for the first time since parliament was created in 1963.

“This is our time. The right to vote was taken away from us for 40 years and until today we didn’t get all our right,” Sara Akbar, Chief Executive of oil firm Kuwait Energy Co told a women-only rally supporting female candidate Rola Dashti.

But others say women, who remain untested and inexperienced in the political arena, still have a long way to go before they can convince voters of their ability to lead Kuwait.

”It will take them another two or three elections to get into parliament,” said Abd Al-Rahman Alyan, editor-in-chief of the English local daily the Kuwait Times.

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