Kuwait’s opposition staged one of the biggest rallies in the Gulf nation’s history today, urging a boycott of tomorrow’s election and calling on the hereditary rulers to share power with elected politicians.
Banners at the rally, attended by tens of thousands, read “Sovereignty resides in the people,” and “Absolute power corrupts.” The opposition, which won an election only for parliament to be disbanded, says changes to voting rules are gerrymandering aimed at creating a docile parliament. The government said they are intended to ensure stability.
Islamists, liberals and youth groups inspired by the Arab Spring are among the groups who have been mobilizing street protests since last year. They escalated this year after parliament was dissolved in June and the ruling emir changed election laws.
The government is urging Kuwaitis to treat this election like earlier ones, and turn out to vote. “If we can’t hear your voice, how can we understand you?” says an ad on state television. Without opposition participation, though, the vote is likely to deepen the political standoff that has stalled growth and investment projects in OPEC’s third-biggest producer.
“It’s very sad because the government is going against the wind, the wind of change,” said Saad al-Ajmi, a professor at Kuwait University and a former information minister, in a phone interview. “The boycott will be in the area of 70 percent, if not more. The elections will turn out to be a joke.”
Last time, turnout was approaching 60 percent with an hour left before polls closed, the state news agency KUNA reported at the time. No final figure was given.
Kuwait’s economy, which relies on oil for more than 90 percent of its revenue, has trailed Gulf peers as political disputes brought repeated dissolutions of parliament and Cabinet resignations, and held up a $110 billion development plan. Projects such as a new refinery and power plant have been delayed amid opposition from lawmakers.
The country’s benchmark stock index is up less than 1 percent in dollar terms in the past year, lagging behind the 4.4 percent increase in a Bloomberg index of the biggest Gulf companies. Private-sector borrowing grew at the slowest pace in at least 17 years in 2011. The Central Bank of Kuwait last month cut the key interest rate by 50 basis points to 2 percent to spur growth.
The amendment to the ballot system requires voters to choose only one candidate, instead of four previously. The opposition says it will make it easier for corrupt candidates to buy votes. Emir Sheikh Sabah Al-Ahmed Al-Sabah said last month he asked the government to change the system to “bolster the democratic practice” and safeguard national unity.
The move to amend election rules sparked Kuwait’s most violent street protests, with several demonstrators including former lawmakers arrested. The opposition has said it will use “all constitutional tools” to bring down the new parliament.
Many voters say they will stay away from the balloting.
“I’m boycotting the elections,” said Amer Al-Hilal, a 45-year-old former diplomat. “I’m weary and suspicious of a system that offers no reform, no development and no transparency yet insists on pushing the reset button every year or so until they like the election results.”
Others are heeding the government’s call. Adel Al-Haddad, a businessman, said he sees the standoff as a “choice between two evils” and has decided to vote because of his concern about what could happen if it escalates.
“The Muslim Brotherhood is behind the curtain and could come and take over like they did in Egypt,” he said. “I don’t want to see any amendments to the constitution or an elected prime minister. I want stability and continuity.”
Kuwait’s economy will remain stable in the short term, thanks to more than $300 billion in foreign assets and high oil prices, said Jassim Al-Saadoun, head of Kuwait-based Al-Shall Economic Consultants. Development projects, though, will continue to lag, he said.
The Al-Zour refinery, proposed in 2007, is still at the consulting stage after opposition lawmakers challenged the procedure for awarding contracts. Kuwait last month hired Amec Plc and Foster Wheeler AG to work on the plan, and said the refinery won’t open until 2018.
While the next parliament may be more cooperative, there will be problems when it comes to forming a Cabinet, al-Saadoun said. Among about 300 candidates, many are little known to the public, or politicians with a track record of toeing the government line.
“No one who is any good will accept a part in the new government,” he said. “There is much more instability to come.”