Kuwait heads to polls amid opposition boycott
Kuwait stands at a crossroads as voters head to the polls on Saturday for a contest being boycotted by the opposition and with little hope of restoring stability, analysts say.
Voter turnout for what will be Kuwait's second polls of the year, and the fifth since mid-2006, is seen as a litmus test for the popularity of the opposition and the government as they lock horns.
Kuwait was seen in neighbouring Gulf states as a beacon of democracy with its vibrant parliament, introduced in 1962, and freedom of speech. But this image has been shattered by non-stop wrangling over the past six years.
"Kuwait stands at a crossroads. The outcome of Saturday's polls will be decisive for the country's future," Shiite election candidate Abdulwahed al-Khalfan said.
"If turnout comes at less than 35-40 percent, it will strengthen the opposition. But if it exceeds 50 percent, as we hope, it will be a major morale booster for the next parliament," Khalfan said.
No significant opposition figure is contesting the legislative polls and accordingly all the 50 seats will be won by pro-government members though Khalfan believes a new form of opposition within parliament will emerge.
The opposition held 36 seats in the scrapped house elected in February.
The election campaign has been lacklustre, with only small crowds showing up for gatherings compared to thousands in previous polls.
The Islamist, nationalist and liberal opposition is confident of a high voter boycott and that this will hasten the demise of the next parliament.
"We are expecting a 70-percent voter boycott. We believe the boycott campaign has been extremely successful," said opposition figure Mohammed al-Dallal, a member of the scrapped 2012 parliament.
"We are optimistic that the next parliament will not last long because it is rejected by wide sections of the people. It has already lost popular and constitutional legitimacy," Dallal said.
The government has countered huge boycott protests with a media blitz over state-run television to convince citizens to vote, while the emir, Sheikh Sabah al-Ahmad Al-Sabah, has also urged Kuwaitis to exercise their democratic right.
The current dispute between the government, led by the Al-Sabah ruling family, and the opposition was triggered by a decree issued by the emir to amend electoral law.
The opposition says the unilateral amendment in October was unconstitutional and intended to influence the outcome of the polls and elect a pro-government parliament.
In an unprecedented verdict four months earlier, Kuwait's top court nullified the February legislative polls, scrapped the opposition-controlled parliament and reinstated a pro-government house.
Independent political analyst Nasser al-Abdali, head of the Kuwait Society for the Advancement of Democracy, said the "confrontation will continue and will take various forms ... Violence is not ruled out."
"It is a struggle between chaos and the state of law ... Now, Kuwait is witnessing chaos with state institutions paralysed and development stalled despite unprecedented huge financial surpluses," he said.
OPEC member Kuwait has posted budget surpluses of over $250 billion in the past 13 fiscal years, thanks to high oil prices, and is estimated to hold around $400 billion of foreign assets.
Khalfan and Abdali agreed that the future depends on the selection of a strong and reformist government that can put development back on track.
Dallal said that after the election, the opposition will launch a fresh campaign to urge a boycott of the next cabinet and parliament and any legislation passed by them.
"The peaceful protests will continue until the next parliament is scrapped and the amendment to the electoral law is repealed," he said.
Since mid-2006, nine governments have resigned and parliament has been dissolved on six occasions, in relentless political disputes as Kuwaitis stepped up demands for fundamental reforms and power-sharing.
The opposition, however, has never challenged the Al-Sabah family in power for more than 250 years.