High turnout as Kuwaitis vote amid press­ing eco­nomic, se­cu­rity chal­lenges

Op­po­si­tion’s re­turn en­er­gized the elec­tions

Kuwait Times - - LOCAL -

Kuwaitis went to the polls yes­ter­day for the first elec­tion con­tested by the op­po­si­tion in nearly four years amid fresh dis­putes over cuts in sub­si­dies due to fall­ing oil rev­enues. Turnout was high at many of the 100 polling sta­tions with some cen­ters re­port­ing 70 per­cent of el­i­gi­ble vot­ers had cast their bal­lots with two hours to go, ac­cord­ing to state-run Kuwait Tele­vi­sion. While Kuwait’s two pre­vi­ous elec­tions yielded poor turnout due to an op­po­si­tion boy­cott, vot­ers said they were en­cour­aged by more can­di­dates run­ning this time around. “Their re­turn is needed to strike a po­lit­i­cal bal­ance in the coun­try. They are more ca­pa­ble of mon­i­tor­ing the govern­ment ac­tions,” re­tired voter Ibrahim Al-Tu­laihi said at a polling sta­tion south of Kuwait City.

“A wise op­po­si­tion is needed be­cause we don’t want more po­lit­i­cal dis­putes,” Jar­rah Mo­ham­mad, a govern­ment em­ployee, said af­ter cast­ing his bal­lot. Un­usu­ally for the oil-rich Gulf Arab states, Kuwait has an elected par­lia­ment with pow­ers to hold min­is­ters to ac­count, even though se­nior mem­bers of the rul­ing Al-Sabah fam­ily hold all top cabi­net posts.

The elec­tion comes against a back­drop of dis­con­tent among Kuwaiti cit­i­zens over mount­ing cut­backs in the cra­dle-to-grave wel­fare sys­tem they have long en­joyed as a slump in world oil prices hits govern­ment rev­enues.

Is­lamist can­di­date Ha­mad Al-Matar, a for­mer MP, said he ex­pected the op­po­si­tion to win a ma­jor­ity in the 50-seat par­lia­ment and pre­vent the govern­ment from rais­ing charges. “There will be no charges on cit­i­zens be­cause we have no prob­lem with fi­nances. We have a prob­lem with govern­ment man­age­ment and cor­rup­tion,” Matar said. The op­po­si­tion is field­ing 30 can­di­dates among a to­tal of 293 hope­fuls who in­clude 14 women.

Women, who have had the right to vote in Kuwait since 2005, were al­ready queu­ing out­side polling sta­tions when vot­ing be­gan at 8 am. “We want the next par­lia­ment to stop the govern­ment from hik­ing prices,” said pen­sioner Maa­souma Ab­dul­lah.

“We want the govern­ment to be­gin tax­ing the rich and pay great at­ten­tion to the low-in­come sec­tions,” added Maha Khor­shid, an ed­u­ca­tion min­istry em­ployee. Op­po­si­tion can­di­dates cam­paigned heav­ily for eco­nomic and so­cial re­form and an end to what they charge is ram­pant cor­rup­tion.

Bleak eco­nomic back­drop

The elec­tion also comes with Kuwait fac­ing its most acute bud­get cri­sis in years. Oil in­come, which ac­counts for 95 per­cent of govern­ment rev­enues, has nose­dived by 60 per­cent over the past two years. And the emirate has fewer al­ter­na­tives than its Gulf neigh­bors, partly be­cause of its elected leg­is­la­ture, an­a­lysts say.

“It has built an eco­nomic model com­pletely funded by oil and nat­u­ral gas rev­enue to sup­port its work­force, but with its em­pow­ered par­lia­ment it has less flex­i­bil­ity than any other state in the re­gion to aban­don that model,” USbased in­tel­li­gence firm Stratfor said in a re­cent re­port. Kuwaiti cit­i­zens make up around 30 per­cent of the emirate’s pop­u­la­tion of 4.4 mil­lion. A to­tal of 483,000 are el­i­gi­ble to vote.

No mo­ti­va­tion

But de­spite some pos­i­tiv­ity sur­round­ing the elec­tions es­pe­cially af­ter the op­po­si­tion’s end of boy­cott, there have been fac­tors that un­der­mined Kuwaitis’ con­fi­dence that their votes will make much dif­fer­ence. “There is noth­ing that drives me to cast my vote,” says Nasser alDa­wood, a 26-year old mar­keter. “We boy­cotted the pre­vi­ous elec­tions for a num­ber of rea­sons. Those rea­sons are still valid ... our par­tic­i­pa­tion will only give le­git­i­macy to this cat-and-mouse game be­tween cabi­net and par­lia­ment.”

Only a few of the 293 can­di­dates run­ning are sea­soned politi­cians. Op­po­si­tion mem­bers boy­cotted the last polls in De­cem­ber 2012 and many now have ei­ther re­tired from pol­i­tics or be­long to groups that are seen as frac­tured and in­ef­fec­tual.

Slightly smaller than the US state of New Jersey and with only 1.4 mil­lion cit­i­zens, Kuwait has the world’s sixth largest proven oil re­serves and en­joyed more than 15 years of bud­get sur­pluses un­til the price of oil col­lapsed in 2014. Since then, the govern­ment has pushed through a pro­gram of eco­nomic re­form that in­cluded re­duc­tions in sub­si­dies on elec­tric­ity, wa­ter and gaso­line. It has also moved to trim mas­sive pub­lic-sec­tor la­bor costs.

His High­ness the Amir Sheikh Sabah Al-Ah­mad AlJaber Al-Sabah pointed to “re­gional cir­cum­stances” and “se­cu­rity chal­lenges” in his de­ci­sion to dis­solve par­lia­ment. Kuwait’s north­ern neigh­bor, Iraq, is fight­ing to drive Is­lamic State mil­i­tants from the north­ern city of Mo­sul.

In June 2015, nor­mally peace­ful Kuwait was stunned when an Is­lamic State-claimed sui­cide bomb­ing at a Shi­ite mosque in Kuwait City killed 27 peo­ple and wounded scores. In Oc­to­ber of this year, an Egyp­tian who al­legedly was an Is­lamic State sup­porter rammed a garbage truck into a ve­hi­cle car­ry­ing US sol­diers, wound­ing only him­self.

Those con­cerns have raised ques­tions about Kuwait’s fu­ture. Still, eco­nomic is­sues in­clud­ing a crit­i­cal short­age of hous­ing for cit­i­zens and the prospect of fur­ther belt­tight­en­ing are fore­most in vot­ers’ minds.

New blood

Turnout had ap­peared to be low in the first few hours af­ter polls opened, but picked up even­tu­ally as of­fi­cials ex­pected be­fore polls closed. Many of the vot­ers who cast their bal­lot af­ter polls opened said they hoped the elec­tion would in­ject new blood into par­lia­ment.

“I hope we will have a bet­ter par­lia­ment than the pre­vi­ous one,” said a 22-year-old Is­lamic Waqf Af­fairs min­istry em­ployee af­ter she voted for the first time at a girls’ school in the up­per mid­dle class al-Rawda district in south­ern Kuwait City.

“We want young men who can help turn Kuwait into a fi­nan­cial and com­mer­cial hub, and who can help give peo­ple their rights with­out the help of in­flu­en­tial peo­ple,” said Amal Abul, 45, a de­part­ment head at the ed­u­ca­tion min­istry.

Aus­ter­ity mea­sures

Cam­paign­ing has fo­cused mainly on aus­ter­ity mea­sures adopted in the past year af­ter of­fi­cials fore­cast a deficit of 9.5 bil­lion di­nars ($31 bil­lion) for the 2016/17 fis­cal year. The OPEC state re­lies on oil for about 90 per­cent of its rev­enues.

Although the deficit is likely to be smaller than fore­cast as it was based on an oil price of $25 a bar­rel, many Kuwaitis fear the govern­ment will try to raise prices fur­ther and cut many of the perks they have en­joyed for decades, in­clud­ing free health care, ed­u­ca­tion, sub­si­dized ba­sic prod­ucts, free hous­ing or land plots and in­ter­est-free loans to many cit­i­zens.

The cabi­net has ap­proved eco­nomic re­forms, in­clud­ing in­creas­ing gaso­line prices by as much as 80 per­cent. “The rais­ing of fuel prices and elec­tric­ity prices has se­verely hurt cit­i­zens,” 23-year-old Ab­dal­lah, said af­ter he cast his bal­lot at a pub­lic school in the up­per mid­dle class al-Rawda district in Kuwait City.

Amal al-Jar­al­lah, a 50-year-old Ed­u­ca­tion De­part­ment em­ployee, said she wanted to see MPs try to im­prove health and ed­u­ca­tion stan­dards and help work­ing mothers. Asked if she wanted to see women in par­lia­ment, she said: “If they are qual­i­fied, yes. But that is not an is­sue.” — Agen­cies

KUWAIT: Kuwaiti men ar­rive to cast their votes for the par­lia­men­tary elec­tions at a polling sta­tion in Kuwait City yes­ter­day. —Pho­tos by Yasser Al-Zayyat

A Kuwaiti woman writes on her bal­lot pa­per be­fore cast­ing her vote for the par­lia­men­tary elec­tions at a polling sta­tion yes­ter­day.

A close up shot shows the hand of a Kuwaiti man cast­ing his vote for the par­lia­men­tary elec­tions at a polling sta­tion.

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