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Kuwaitis start voting, fearing no change to crisis | ASHARQ AL-AWSAT English Archive 2005 -2017
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KUWAIT, (Reuters) – Kuwaitis cast their votes in their third election since 2006 on Saturday with early turnout slow and few confident that the polls will end a tussle between parliament and cabinet that has delayed economic reforms.

The new assembly will have to vote on a $5 billion economic stimulus package seen as crucial to helping the financial sector of the Gulf Arab country overcome the global financial crisis.

The measures were approved by the caretaker cabinet, which is dominated by members of the ruling family, and by ruler Sheikh Sabah al-Ahmad al-Sabah, in March after the last assembly was dissolved, but must also be approved by the new assembly. There are no political parties in Kuwait, the world’s fourth largest oil exporter, but conservative Islamists and tribal figures who have opposed government economic plans and pressed ministers over accountability are expected to dominate again.

“The deadlock will continue because the champions who caused the deadlock last time will come back,” said Abu Khalid, a voter in his 60s, while waiting his turn to cast his vote.

Some 210 candidates are running for the 50-seat assembly, including 16 women hoping to win their first seat in a conservative country where politics remains a man’s world.

About 384,790 Kuwaitis are eligible to vote and over half are women.

Polling got off to a slow start though more voters were expected by late afternoon when temperatures cool down. Voting booths opened at 8 a.m (0500 GMT) and were due to close at 8 p.m. (1700 GMT).

“Nothing has changed, every year it is the same thing,” said Manal al-Meshari, a veiled female voter in her 30s, who was at a polling station. “Women must have a mind of their own and not to follow what their husbands say. I gave my vote to a woman.”

Analysts expect Islamists to lose ground in this election, which could boost liberal candidates and women’s chances of winning a seat, but that may not be enough to end the deadlock.

“Islamists could lose some seats but it won’t be enough to change the general mood in parliament,” political analyst Shafiq al-Ghabra said. “The ball will be in the government’s court again to move forward with development.”

Although its political system resembles Western democracy more closely than that of any other nation in the Gulf Arab region, Kuwait has fallen behind its neighbours economically.

Qatar, the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain have all transformed themselves from desert backwaters into commercial, financial and tourist centres that attract foreign investors. By contrast, parliament has blocked many of Kuwait’s major projects and the state was forced to rescue a major bank last year.

Kuwait’s protracted crisis led Moody’s Investors Service to say in March that it may cut the country’s sovereign rating for the first time since it started rating Kuwait in 1996.

Deputies accuse the government of corruption and oppose trimming back the huge welfare state. They have insisted on using their rights to demand ministers appear before parliament for public scrutiny. The government, dominated by the ruling Al Sabah family, baulks at allowing ministers to be questioned.

The government resigned in March to avoid Prime Minister Sheikh Nasser al-Mohammad al-Sabah, a nephew of the ruler, having to appear before parliamentarians for questioning.

This prompted the ruler to dissolve parliament and call new polls in an effort to end the stalemate, as Kuwait’s rulers have done repeatedly in the 45-year history of the elected assembly.

Kuwaiti politics both repels and inspires fellow Gulf Arabs.

In no other Gulf state is the ruling dynasty’s power as diluted by popular political participation as it is in Kuwait.

Yet other Gulf rulers look askance at the system while some voters say the rowdy parliament sets a bad example, holding back development they see implemented by decree around the Gulf.