Boycott-hit voting begins in Kuwait

HUSSAIN AL-QATARI Associated Press Published:

KUWAIT CITY (AP) -- Security forces watched over polling stations Saturday as Kuwait held parliamentary elections that underscored the deepening divide between the ruling establishment and opposition groups staging a widespread boycott of the voting.

The election is certain to bring a pro-government parliament after months of political upheavals in the strategic Gulf nation, a major oil producer and hub for U.S. ground forces as part of the Pentagon's military counterweight to Iran.

But the election snub now leaves a broad range of opposition factions -- ranging from hardline Islamists to Western-leaning liberals -- outside the political process and raises the risks they could increasingly take their grievances to the streets.

"I'm certain that the boycott will have an effect on the turnout," said Information Minister Mohammad al-Abdullah Al Sabah, a member of the ruling family.

He appealed, however, for the opposition to confine their objections within the country's "legal framework."

The anti-government groups have bitterly denounced a decree in October by Kuwait's emir to end an unusual balloting system that allowed four choices per voter.

Critics claim the new one-vote-per-person rule will make it easier for state authorities to potentially influence the outcome. They also say the emir overstepped his authority by changing the voting rules without public debate.

On the eve of the election, more than 15,000 people joined a peaceful pro-boycott march in the first rally permitted by authorities since a ruling last month banning gatherings of more than 20 people.

Security forces were deployed around polling stations, but there were no immediate indications of unrest or boycott supporters trying to disrupt the voting. Some opposition groups predict turnout could be well below 50 percent.

Kuwait has the Gulf's most political powerfully parliament, which was in the hands of Islamists and their allies earlier this year before the courts dissolved it over a legal challenge by the ruling establishment over electoral districts.

The country also has some of the widest political and media freedoms among the Gulf Arab states, but key government posts and policies remain under the control of the ruling family.

Complaints against authorities include increasing efforts to muzzle free speech and failure to have Kuwait's economy and growth keep pace with other dynamic Gulf centers such as Qatar's capital Doha and the United Arab Emirates' hubs of Dubai and Abu Dhabi. Last month, four people were arrested on charges of insulting Kuwait's emir in Twitter posts.

Yet Islamists and their backers also worry many Kuwaitis for open support of stricter Muslim codes such as censoring artists and imposing death sentences for those convicted of denigrating Islam.

A 29-year-old voter, Ali Boushehri, said he was frustrated with both sides.

"I hold the government accountable for many of our shortcomings in Kuwait, and that is why I am voting," he said. "I don't agree with the opposition. Boycotting is not a good thing to do ... I want to vote because I believe in democracy."

The region's popular uprisings have not spilled over to Kuwait in a major way as in nearby Bahrain, and it remains unlikely opposition groups would wage an all-out challenge to the current system and risk losing the generous cradle-to-grave benefits provided by the state.

But clashes last month between protesters and security forces displayed the potential for violence to escalate.

Kuwait also has been hit by a wave of labor unrest and strikes earlier this year, including walkouts that grounded the state carrier, Kuwait Airways, and temporarily closed customs posts and left several hundred trucks stranded at the border.

Calls for better working conditions have grown louder in the wake of the Arab Spring uprisings. Kuwaitis are used to well-paid government jobs and benefits that increasingly have become a burden on state finances despite the country's huge oil wealth.