Kuwait, the only Gulf Arab country with a powerful assembly, holds another election mired in deadlock

DUBAI, United Arab Emirates (AP) — Voters in Kuwait cast their ballots Tuesday for the third time in as many years, with little hope of ending a protracted standoff between the ruling family and assertive lawmakers after power judiciary dissolved the legislature earlier this year.

Kuwait is unique among the Gulf Arab countries in having a democratically elected assembly that exercises checks on the ruling family. But in recent years, the political system has been crippled by infighting and unable to enact even basic reforms.

“People on the ground aren’t very optimistic right now about change, and that’s why you’re seeing this frustration and probably low turnout and low numbers of applicants,” said Dania Thafer, executive director of the Gulf International Forum, a Washington-based think tank.

Polling stations will close at 8 p.m. and results are expected on Wednesday.

The last election, held just eight months ago, gave a mandate for change, bringing 27 new lawmakers to the 50-member assembly, including conservative Islamists and two women. Some had served in previous parliaments.

But in March, Kuwait’s Constitutional Court overturned the decree dissolving the previous parliament, elected in 2020, thus restoring it. A few weeks later, the ruling Al Sabah family dissolved that parliament for the second time, setting up this week’s vote.

Kristin Diwan, senior resident scholar at the Arab Gulf States Institute in Washington, says the unrest stems in part from divisions within the ruling family after the 2020 death of Sheikh Sabah Al Ahmad Al Sabah, a veteran diplomat who had led the country for nearly 15 years. years.

The 91-year-old was succeeded by his ailing half-brother Sheikh Nawaf Al Ahmad Al Sabah, with Crown Prince Sheikh Meshal Al Ahmed Al Jaber Al Sabah assuming day-to-day power. Both are over 80 and the line of succession after Sheikh Meshal is unclear.

Another member of the royal family, Sheikh Ahmad Nawaf Al Sabah, son of the current emir, was appointed prime minister in 2022 but has recently emerged as a lightning rod for criticism.

“There is a lack of clear direction and energy coming from the top,” Diwan said. “There is a sort of general vacuum where you can see other political institutions and social forces taking advantage of this and filling this gap.”

The Emir appoints the Prime Minister and the Cabinet, and can dissolve Parliament at any time. But lawmakers can approve or block legislation, and can question ministers and seek their removal. There are no political parties.

Two former Speakers of Parliament hope to return to the relatively influential office.

Marzouq al-Ghanim, a scion of an influential family and a prominent member of the country’s powerful business community, led the elected assembly in 2020. He recently launched scathing criticism of the prime minister, calling him of “danger to the country”. undermine his authority.

As president, al-Ghanim “was ready to use all the tools he had in parliament to really concentrate power…in a more authoritarian way,” Diwan said. Her harsh criticism of the Prime Minister, a senior member of the ruling family, was “truly striking”, she added.

He will likely face off against Ahmed al-Saadoun, a seasoned politician who managed to unite a wide range of opposition lawmakers in the parliament that convened last year. They have pushed for policies that would disperse the country’s enormous oil wealth more widely, including debt relief for consumer loans, which the government considers fiscally irresponsible.

Kuwait has the sixth largest oil reserves and is among the wealthiest countries in the world, with cradle-to-grave welfare for its 1.5 million citizens. But many say the government has not invested enough in education, health care and other services.

Opposition figures have also called for electoral reforms that would bring more women and young people into the assembly, including a return to an earlier system in which people could vote for more than one candidate in their constituency.

“There’s a feeling that if people only have one vote, it forces political blocs to make a lot of tough decisions about who to lead,” said Courtney Freer, a researcher at the London School of Economics and Political Science.

“It also makes it harder for women candidates, who are already disadvantaged,” she said.

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