Verdict on election law due just before polling day

Published in Gulf States News, 22 November 2012 Kuwait faces a tense run-up to polling day on 1 December, with a court hearing on its controversial voting system and a large opposition rally expected in the final week of campaigning. The administrative court verdict is due on 26 November and will decide whether a recent Emiri decree changing the electoral law is legal. The changes, announced by Emir Sheikh Sabah Al-Ahmed Al-Sabah in October, would see one vote per person, rather than the four each previously had, a change which the opposition says is designed to weaken it.

Should the court decide against the decree, the authorities could be forced to postpone the vote, which opposition groups have in any case said they will boycott. If the decree is deemed lawful, the opposition will have just four more days to try and convince the public to shun the poll. Their campaign is set to culminate in a large rally on 30 November, the eve of polling day.

There is the potential for drama, although Kuwait has a tendency to abandon the script. After several weeks of tension, with mass demonstrations, confrontations with security forces and a number of arrests, the mood on the ground has calmed down. The opposition seems content – for now at least – to hold an officially sanctioned protest outside parliament each Sunday, presumably awaiting the court’s verdict to decide its next move. On the streets of the capital, there is little to show that an election is imminent. Traffic jams persist as the city goes about its business, and a government ban on candidates advertising means only a few campaign posters are in view.

On election day itself, some 422,569 Kuwaiti men and women will be entitled to vote, according to the interior ministry. How many will actually do so is a matter of some debate. In recent elections, the turnout has been around 60%. Minister for information Sheikh Mohammed Abdullah Al-Mubarak Al- Sabah said on 20 November that he hoped turnout would be higher this time, and an opinion poll conducted by Al-Seyassah newspaper earlier in the month indicated it could be as high as 71%.

The government is thought to be hoping for a turnout of at least 50%, to avoid questions of legitimacy. But it could well be lower. One Kuwaiti analyst, who is broadly sympathetic to the government, told GSN:“I think it’s not going to be below 30%. If it is above 30% it will be fine.”

The final list of candidates will not be completed until 24 November. Close to 400 candidates initially applied, but that number has gradually been whittled down. On 19 November, the National Election Commission disqualified 37 candidates, including several former MPs. A day later, five others withdrew from the contest. At the time of writing, 306 candidates remained in the running across the five electoral areas, each of which will return ten MPs.

The opposition has said that it will continue its campaign, regardless of the election’s outcome. Hugely popular MP Musallam Al-Barrak, who was detained in October for a speech he made to protesters, told a rally on 18 November that the opposition would “use all peaceful means to bring down this parliament”.