Kuwaiti voters braved searing heat in the middle of the dawn-to-dusk Ramadan fast to cast ballots Saturday in parliamentary elections that leaders in the oil-rich Gulf nation hope can restore some stability after years of escalating confrontations between its Western-backed rulers and an Islamist-led opposition.
The outcome is likely to be strongly in favour of candidates allied with the ruling dynasty as opposition factions have pledged to boycott voting. Kuwait’s having its third parliamentary election in 17 months.
But that is no guarantee of calming the political upheavals, which have touched off street clashes and widening crackdowns by authorities on social media. The ruling Al Sabah family, a close Washington ally is facing criticism of overreaching and imposing heavy-handed tactics against a diverse array of foes that includes liberals seeking greater political openness and groups ideologically tied to Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood.
Kuwait’s 50-seat parliament has by far the strongest powers of any elected body among the Gulf Arab states. In the past, opposition lawmakers have directly challenged the government of alleged corruption and claims of muzzling dissent. Kuwait’s 84-year-old emir controls all key government positions and policies, yet nowhere else in the Gulf can elected lawmakers block initiatives or publicly scold top officials.
The vote, which unusually falls in the middle of the Islamic holy month of Ramadan, was called after a court invalidated the parliament picked in December elections. The court found technical flaws in the election, but let stand new voting rules ordered by Kuwait’s ruler that brought one-vote per person.
The former system allowed four votes per person, which could be spread among various candidates. Critics say it encouraged vote buying and pressures by tribal leaders to keep the votes within their clan.
Opposition factions, led by Islamist groups, strongly objected to the change and vowed to boycott the election as they did in December. Many Islamists in Kuwait also are dismayed over the country’s active support for the military-led leadership in Egypt that took power after toppling Mohammed Morsy and his Muslim Brotherhood-led administration earlier this month. Kuwait has pledged $4 billion to Egypt in loans, grants and fuel.
Other Gulf Arab countries are closely watching the moves by Kuwait’s Islamists, considered by the United Arab Emirates and others as part of a wider network seeking to bring down their pro-Western fraternity. Washington, too, is deeply vested in Kuwait’s stability as a critical link in the Pentagon’s military array against nearby Iran. Kuwait hosts thousands of U.S. soldiers in the largest deployment of American ground forces in the region.
Other groups, such as liberals and online activists, appear willing to join the voting this time. But there is still deep-rooted anger on all sides over Kuwait’s social media clampdown, part of wider Gulf efforts to punish Twitter users and others for posts considered insulting to rulers. Dozens of people in Kuwait have faced charges over online posts since last year.
The rare Ramadan election was held during daylight hours despite temperatures expected to peak near 50 degrees (122 F). There has been no official declaration from Kuwait’s religious authorities on whether it was acceptable to break the fasting in the withering heat.
But at least two prominent Islamic scholars were quoted in Kuwaiti newspapers as suggesting that circumstances could open room for eating or drinking during the day, which is permitted under Islamic law for instances such as health or long travel.
Mohammad Tabtabai, a Sunni professor of Islamic law at Kuwait University, said long voting lines in the heat could be considered an “extraordinary” event that would allow breaking the Ramadan fast. A Shiite cleric, Mohammad al-Mohri, that breaking the fast could be allowed for voters forced to travel to distant voting stations.
No Kuwaiti parliament elected after 2003 has completed its four-year term. The first elections in Kuwait were held in 1963, years before full statehood for other Gulf nations such as the UAE and Bahrain.