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'Elections on steroids': Kuwait, under new emir, votes yet again

Kuwait's elections are only the second held during the holy month of Ramadan, whose first day was marked cannon fire for Iftar, the time to break the daytime fast, at sunset at Naif Palace in Kuwait City (YASSER AL-ZAYYAT)
Kuwait's elections are only the second held during the holy month of Ramadan, whose first day was marked cannon fire for Iftar, the time to break the daytime fast, at sunset at Naif Palace in Kuwait City (YASSER AL-ZAYYAT)

Election-weary Kuwait voted for the third time in three years on Thursday, just months into the reign of a new emir but with no end in sight to the major oil exporter's chronic political paralysis.

Parliamentary polls have become an annual occurrence for the OPEC member country, which has seven percent of the world's oil reserves and the monarchical Gulf's most powerful elected assembly.

However, the national assembly's clashes with the royal-appointed cabinet have caused constant stalemate, delaying much-needed reforms.

"These elections are different," retired health worker Sheikha Yaqoub Al-Aziz told AFP, after she cast her vote at a women-only polling station in the Jabriya area.

"We hope that the interests of the citizens and the country will be achieved, similar to other Gulf countries, and that services will develop."

Almost 835,000 voters are eligible to choose 50 MPs from 200 candidates, including just 13 women, in only the second Kuwaiti election held during the Muslim holy month of Ramadan.

The polls' opening hours are midday to midnight (0900-2100 GMT). Results are expected on Friday, followed by the resignation of the first government appointed by the new emir, Sheikh Meshal al-Ahmad al-Sabah.

"Kuwait's participatory politics is unmatched in the region," Kuwait University political analyst Bader al-Saif told AFP.

"Its system requires a reset and urgently needed reforms no doubt, but the fact that it enables its citizens to express themselves and have a say in governance makes it different."

- 'Radical reset' -

Sheikh Meshal, formerly the world's oldest crown prince, came to power aged 83 in December after the death of his half-brother and predecessor, Sheikh Nawaf.

He took aim at both the cabinet and parliament in his inaugural speech to the assembly, and then announced an era of "reform" as he picked Kuwait's first foreign minister from outside the ruling family.

But in February, the national assembly was dissolved once again, accused in a royal decree of constitutional violations including "offensive and inappropriate language", after a lawmaker responded to the emir's criticism.

Thursday's polls -- the third since 2022, and the fourth in five years -- are unusual as the incoming parliament will be tasked with approving Sheikh Meshal's choice of crown prince, Kuwait's future emir.

If the assembly takes the unprecedented step of rejecting his heir, Sheikh Meshal will submit three candidates for parliamentarians to choose from.

"This democratic process is different from the previous ones," said Ibrahim Dashti, one of the election candidates.

"The next parliament may contribute to determining who will be the crown prince, that is, who will be the next emir of Kuwait," he added.

The candidates are standing for four-year terms but may serve less than that, given that parliament has been dissolved frequently since it first convened in 1963.

Kuwaitis, a minority in the mainly expatriate population of more than 4.3 million, blame the political standoffs for a sluggish economy, ageing infrastructure and an inability to enact reforms.

Meanwhile, resource-rich neighbours Saudi Arabia, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates are racing ahead with economic diversification plans.

With no far-reaching reforms in the pipeline, "not much change is expected" in the current election, Saif warned.

"Crises have become a permanent feature of the system," the analyst said.

"Radical reset requires reforming the constitution and going at root causes to avoid cyclical problems and elections on steroids."

str/th/kir