Bloomberg News

Kuwait Votes for Assembly as Opposition Rides Protest Wave

February 02, 2012

(Updates with polls closing in second paragraph, voter turnout in third.)

Feb. 2 (Bloomberg) -- Kuwaitis voted today in parliamentary elections, the fourth in less than six years, with opposition groups expected to gain seats.

Men and women lined up at segregated polling stations across five districts from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. local time to cast votes for the 50-seat National Assembly. About 400,000 people were entitled to vote in a country where a third of the population of 3.6 million is Kuwaiti.

Voter turnout was 59.5 percent an hour before polls closed, the state news agency KUNA reported. Total turnout last time around, in 2009, was about 58 percent.

The ballot follows months of unprecedented anti-government demonstrations sparked by corruption allegations against Sheikh Nasser Al-Mohammed Al-Sabah, who quit as prime minister of the Persian Gulf state in November. That prompted Emir Sheikh Sabah Al-Ahmad Al-Jaber Al-Sabah, his uncle, to dissolve parliament and call elections.

“The opposition has been doing a good job fighting corruption,” said Ahmed Ali Al-Habib, a 33-year-old engineer who was voting in Salwa, south of Kuwait City. He said he wants to see the opposition win 65 percent of the seats. Saeed Bilal Moussa, a 57-year-old retiree voting in a next-door room, said: “I don’t want trouble-makers in the new parliament, and that’s what I voted for.”

Kuwait, the fourth-biggest producer in the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries, created the Gulf’s first elected parliament half a century ago.

Corruption Allegations

Protests were fueled by allegations that lawmakers received millions of dollars of unexplained payments and that Sheikh Nasser transferred public funds into his foreign bank accounts. The government of Sheikh Nasser, who was replaced by Sheikh Jaber Al-Mubarak Al-Sabah after his resignation, denied the accusations.

The opposition has vowed to use its strength in the assembly to press for measures that would legalize political parties and let the elected assembly choose a government. Currently, Kuwait’s emir appoints the premier, and parliament has more powers to block legislation than initiate it.

The opposition may win 33 of the 50 seats, based on a synthesis of available opinion polls, Talal Al-Kashti, who manages the Ittejahat Center, a Kuwait-based research group, told Bloomberg on Jan. 31. In the previous parliament, the opposition averaged about 20 lawmakers.

Of the 286 candidates running in five districts, 23 are women, including four lawmakers who were the first women to be elected when the last vote was held in May 2009.

‘Things That Matter’

“I voted for liberalism and feminism,” Dalia Essa, 38, said. “I want things to get done, I don’t want any more drama and debates. I want things that actually matter to happen, like education, health and development.”

Opposition candidates including veteran lawmaker Ahmed Al- Saadoun have accused the government of delays in implementation of its $111 billion investment plan, which includes expanding oil and gas production and building transport networks, cities, universities, hospitals, a new port and airport, and power stations.

The opposition movement includes Islamists, liberals and independents, as well as youth groups who cite inspiration from the Arab protests that swept away longtime leaders in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya. Some groups demand a constitutional monarchy and elected government. Others say their focus is fighting corruption and are calling for political reform without amending the constitution.

“I want more Islamist and opposition candidates to win,” said Mona Khalaf, a 43-year-old housewife, wearing the traditional black abaya, or cloak, and full-faced veil known as niqab. “A number of lawmakers are supporting anti-Islamic issues, they want alcohol,” which is banned, she said. “Tensions will continue because governments have always been against people’s wishes.”

--Editors: Ben Holland, Jennifer M. Freedman

To contact the reporters on this story: Dahlia Kholaif in Kuwait at dkholaif@bloomberg.net; Fiona MacDonald in Kuwait at fmacdonald4@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Shaji Mathew at shajimathew@bloomberg.net


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