KUWAIT: Kuwaiti voters head to the ballot today to elect a new National Assembly for the second time this year amid boycott calls by the opposition which yesterday staged one of the biggest demonstrations in Kuwait’s history. Organizers estimated that around 250,000 took part in the “Nation’s Dignity” demonstration, but observers said the number could be around 50,000, who almost filled the Arabian Gulf Road between Safir Hotel and Kuwait Towers. The protest lasted two hours and protesters dispersed without incident as dozens of policemen were present to organize the procession and to cut off traffic on the Gulf Road.
Before the start of the march, youth activists released dozens of orange-coloured balloons which flew high near a police helicopter that hovered over the crowds but from a distance. Large numbers of women and children, carrying Kuwaiti flags and orange banners, took part in the 1.5-km march that ended at Kuwait Towers. “We are boycotting for the sake of Kuwait,” chanted young activists as other raised banners reading “Sovereignty Resides in the People” and “Absolute Power Corrupts”.
The Kuwaiti national anthem was played just before the start and protesters did not stop chanting national slogans and singing praises of the country. They also urged voters not to go to the ballots. “The people want the downfall of the decree,” chanted the massive crowds in reference to the Amiri decree that amended the electoral law cutting the number of candidates a voter can choose from a maximum of four to just one. The opposition has maintained the decree is unconstitutional and will only lead to the election of a pro-government National Assembly by encouraging vote-buying and other corrupt practices.
A number of opposition leaders and former MPs including Ahmad Al-Saadoun, Musallam Al-Barrak, Waleed Al-Tabtabaei, Faisal Al-Mislem, Khaled Al-Tahous, Jamaan Al-Harbash and Falah Al-Sawwagh were present at the demonstration. Barrak was in a vehicle that was in front of the protesters and was using a loudspeaker to shout slogans. The opposition figures completely boycotted the registration of candidates and are out to ensure that a large number of voters also boycott the polls.
“The message that the Kuwaiti people send … is that they refuse the changing of the election law by the authorities,” said Saadoun, also a former three-time speaker. “The number of people is a reflection that this decree must be scrapped.” Harbash said the march was the largest of its kind in Kuwait’s history. “The Kuwaiti people refuse elections and refuse the pro-government parliament.” “The people are not against the ruler, they are against corruption and corrupt people, and people who think about changing the constitution,” Barrak said. “Today, the Kuwaiti people are sending a message peacefully that we are against the amendment and against the oppressive attitude of the government,” MP from the annulled 2012 Assembly Adel Al-Damkhi said. “The regime should read the message seriously that there is a real rejection of the law,” Damkhi said.
“This (voting rule) change is against our rights,” 28-year-old social worker Abdul Mohsen said. “There is corruption in the government. We want to fight corruption.” Bader Al-Bader, an unemployed 33-year-old, said: “The government does not believe in having the real democracy that most people believe in nowadays. They believe Kuwait is just a big bag of money and an oil rig.” “The Amir changed the voting rules. We believe the change has to come with the parliament. It is the parliament that represents the people,” said protester Hanouf, 40, a marketing specialist who declined to give her second name. She said current election candidates were mostly new and unqualified with “no clue how to be in parliament or politics”.
About 306 candidates are running for the 50 seats in the Assembly after a last-minute drama over about 30 candidates who were disqualified by the National Election Commission but then reinstated by the administrative court. Around 23 former MPs and 13 female candidates are among the hopefuls. It is the lowest number of former MPs bidding for reelection in any Kuwaiti polls in more than 30 years because all opposition former MPs have boycotted the elections. Voting will take place at 106 main polling stations at schools in various parts of the country with male and female stations separate as per the election law.
Around 54 percent of the 422,000 voters are women because members of the army and police, most of whom are males, are barred from voting. Voting begins at 8:00 am and closes at 8:00 pm but under Kuwaiti law, voters who are inside the polling station before the closure must be allowed to cast their votes. Around 900 judges will oversee the election process and announcement of results while around 2,500 policemen have been mobilized to provide security to the process. Results are not expected before midnight since counting of ballots is still manual in Kuwait.
The new Assembly must meet within two weeks of declaring the results. The government will resign after the results and the new Cabinet must be formed before the Assembly holds its first session. Bedouin tribes are boycotting the election in large numbers while a majority of Shiites are taking part. Suburban Sunnis are divided over the issue. Almost all political groupings are boycotting the polls. The government has said that around 50 foreign monitors and dozens from Kuwait will be allowed to monitor the election.