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Kuwaitis go to polls for 6th time since 2006

Kuwait, July 27, 2013

A boycott by some opposition Islamists and populist politicians may help liberals and independents in Kuwait's election on Saturday, but there are signs voters are flagging as they go to the polls for the sixth time in seven years.

Turnout is expected to be low in sweltering summer temperatures during the Muslim fasting month of Ramadan, and as Kuwaitis become disillusioned with voting in short-lived parliaments.

The oil-producing US ally has the most open political system in the Gulf Arab region. While it has witnessed sizeable street protests in the past two years over local issues, its generous welfare system and relative tolerance of political dissent have helped to shield it from Arab Spring-style unrest.

But parliaments have been dissolved time and again, usually for getting too bold in challenging ministers.

"It is very difficult and it is very depressing for us to have so many elections in such a short time," said lecturer Wasmeyah Al-Abbad after casting her ballot in an upmarket district close to Kuwait City.

Abbad, who is in her 50s, said it was important to vote in order to push for rights for all Kuwaitis, especially women, who were granted the right to vote in 2005. Kuwait may be a wealthy country but it suffers from inequality, she said.

"Men get houses, but women don't, we don't get to choose our careers, and some names are dominating positions," she said, referring to the powerful families that control political and economic life in Kuwait.

Banker Amna Al-Qinae, 43, said that voting Kuwaitis did not necessarily support the government, which she felt was at the heart of the political instability. "We have to vote every time, even if I know they might recall us to vote again in a few months' time."

The snap election was triggered by a ruling from the top court in June, which said the process leading up to the last one in December was legally flawed.

"People are fed up of electing parliaments, especially if the constitutional court upends them," said Abdullah Al-Shayji, chairman of the political science department at Kuwait University.

"People are not really in the mood for politics. They are thinking about where they want to spend their holidays after Ramadan. Some people are already out of the country."


The mainly Islamist and populist opposition is boycotting in protest against a new voting system announced last October, which cut the number of votes per citizen to one from four, and which it says would prevent it forming a majority in parliament.

Kuwait bans political parties, and opposition politicians said the four-vote system enabled them to form alliances by offering reciprocal backing from their supporters. The government said the voting changes brought Kuwait into line with other countries and would ensure stability.

Campaign themes have included fighting corruption, loan relief and concern over a $4 billion aid package to Egypt after the military overthrow of Islamist President Mohamed Mursi.

Kuwait and other Gulf states like Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates were glad to see the back of Mursi because they are fearful of Islamist influence in their own conservative, dynastically ruled countries.

Saturday's vote will elect a 50-member assembly which can pass legislation and interrogate government ministers. But the 84-year-old emir, Sheikh Sabah Al-Ahmad Al-Sabah, has the final say in state matters and can dissolve parliament.

The emir courted groups unhappy about the new voting system and encouraged several powerful tribes to endorse the election. This has led to splits in the opposition, with liberals deciding to run as well as Salafi Islamists, who support the austere form of Islam practised in Saudi Arabia.

Polls are open from 8 am to 8 pm (0500-1700 GMT) and results are expected early on Sunday.

"There is interest, no enthusiasm," said Shafeeq Ghabra, political science professor at Kuwait University.

He said many voters did not feel they were going to make a difference, unlike previous elections such as in February 2012, when opposition MPs won a majority. - Reuters

Tags: Kuwait | Election | Parliament | emir | opposition | Boycott |

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