Tensions high ahead of Kuwait elections

By Shaimaa Khalil
BBC News, Kuwait City

Image caption,
Political activists in Kuwait say there is a new demand for change from the youth and liberal movements

An air of tension dominates in Kuwait as voters get ready to go to the polls for the second parliamentary elections this year.

They are the result of a long-running power struggle between parliament and the government, which is dominated by the ruling Sabah family.

The crisis was sparked earlier this year when Kuwait's top court annulled February's parliamentary elections, which gave Islamists a majority in parliament, and reinstated the previous assembly, allied to the ruling family.

After months of protests and confrontations between the opposition and the government, Kuwait's emir ordered the dissolution of that parliament and announced new elections.

This tension is not just felt on the streets but also online.

The two major campaigns on social media for the 1 December elections go under Arabic titles which translate as "I will take part" and "Boycott".

Namy Harb al-Muteiri described election day as "Black Saturday" when, he tweeted, "the elections of shame will be held".

Another tweeter, Abdul Aziz Al Qana'ee, wrote: "Kuwait has taught us that patriotism is about taking part in shaping the future through elections not through barbaric boycotting."

The ballot comes against the backdrop of recent demonstrations, which saw violent clashes between security forces and protesters.

A number of opposition members were arrested, including high-profile figures like former MP Musallam al-Barrak.

Choice limited

Kuwait's parliament has long history of political turmoil; it has been dissolved six times in the last six years.

But Saturday's elections are proving to be more controversial than any other.

Image caption,
Escalating tensions are threatening Kuwait's political and economic stability

The major grievance of the opposition is the 19 October decree issued by the Emir, Sheikh Sabah al-Ahmed Al Sabah, to change the electoral law.

It now limits the voting choice to one candidate per electoral district instead of four.

Kuwait has a total of five electoral districts, with 10 candidates to be elected from each one.

The emir said the changes were necessary for national unity.

But the opposition, led by Islamist lawmakers and some tribal leaders, called the changes "a coup against the constitution" and said the changes could favour pro-government candidates.

Shaikha al-Moharab is a medical doctor and a political activist. She took part in February's elections but says that she is going to boycott this one.

"Some people might debate whether the new law is good or not but the principle remains the same," she says.

"The leadership doesn't decide for the people, we should decide for ourselves if we want to change the law or not."

Ms Moharab says this should be done through a referendum, not through an emiri decree.

The opposition is planning a protest march on the eve of the elections.

Ms Moharab says it will send a message to the leadership.

"We need a proper system for the formation of political parties - we want these political parties to be represented at the parliament. We don't want a parliament full of government loyalists."

Youth vote

Kuwait has one of the most open political systems in the Gulf, with an elected parliament with legislative powers.

However, the 83-year-old emir has the final say in state affairs and picks the prime minister.

There is demand for change not just from the members of the Muslim Brotherhood and the tribal leaders but from the youth and from liberal movements, says Ms Moharab.

"Political debate is not new in Kuwait but this time it's different because the youth are joining in.

"Reform will take time but at least now we are creating political awareness among young people," she says.

One of those young people is Sarah, who took part in a demonstration last month.

She says she - and many like her - do not want the emir to step down, but that Kuwait needs real political change.

"We are with the Emir and the royal family but we also want our rights to be respected. Kuwait is going backwards not forwards.

Image caption,
The emir of Kuwait signed a new security partnership with the UK this week

"The country has so much potential and we're wasting it," Sarah says.

Opposition activists say Kuwait's development has been stalling for a long time, and that the country's education, health and economic sectors are in disarray.

Kuwait, an Opec member and ally of the US and UK, has so far managed to avoid the effects of Arab Spring protests across the region.

But it is now having to deal with escalating tensions which threaten its political and economic stability.

Ms Moharab says there is a sense of unease in Kuwait now.

"Nobody knows what will happen - we're watching and waiting."

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