Kuwaitis march to urge voter boycott
* Opposition politicians not running in election
* Protesters oppose changes to voting rules imposed by emir
* Government urges Kuwaitis to vote, not protest
KUWAIT: Tens of thousands of people marched in Kuwait on Friday calling for a voter boycott, a day before a parliamentary election that looks unlikely to defuse tensions in the US-allied, oil-producing Gulf country.
Political activists and opposition politicians, who have already said they will not stand or vote in the election to protest at a decree that changed voting rules in a way they say will skew the outcome in favour of pro-government candidates. “The people want to bring down the decree!” demonstrators chanted, in a variation on the slogans of uprisings that have ousted autocratic rulers of four other Arab states since early 2011.
Former Kuwaiti MP Jamaan al-Herbesh said the march was the largest of its kind in Kuwait’s history. “The message to the authorities is that the Kuwaiti people refuse elections and refuse the pro-government parliament,” Herbesh said. Kuwait’s disaffected say they seek democratic reform, not revolution. Kuwait’s ruling emir said the amendments to voting rules are to preserve national security and stability.
Marchers in the “Nation’s Dignity” rally converged on the main, palm tree-lined coastal road of Kuwait City and proceeded toward the landmark Kuwait Towers. Many wore orange clothing, the trademark colour of the boycott movement. They sang songs, carried balloons and carried national flags and banners. Police helicopters circled overhead and there was a light police presence on the ground, but no sign of the armoured trucks and riot police deployed against previous marches. “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.” Kuwait has the most open political system among the Gulf Arab states and the government authorised Friday’s march, hoping to see the opposition let off steam before the vote.
Parliament has legislative powers and the right to question ministers. But the emir, head of the Al-Sabah family that has ruled Kuwait for 250 years, appoints the prime minister who chooses the cabinet. The emir, Sheikh Sabah al-Ahmad al-Sabah, used emergency powers in October to cut the number of votes per citizen to one from four, saying the change would fix a flawed system and maintain security and stability.
Under the old system, candidates could call on supporters to cast additional ballots for their allies. Supporters of that system say such informal affiliations are crucial in a country where political parties are banned. The government says opposition lawmakers used parliament to settle scores rather than helping pass laws needed for economic development. Opposition politicians accuse the government of mismanagement and have called for an elected cabinet.
The Gulf Arab state has held four parliamentary elections since 2006, after a series of assemblies collapsed because of the power struggle between elected lawmakers and the government, which has held up investment and economic reforms. Opposition lawmakers won around two-thirds of the 50-seat National Assembly in February and formed a bloc that put pressure on the government, forcing two ministers from office.
“I am conscious that there are those who have called for a boycott of the election,” Information Minister Sheikh Mohammad al-Mubarak al-Sabah said late on Thursday. “I find this of great regret and I hope to the bottom of my heart that the 400,000-plus Kuwaitis who have the ability to cast their vote for their preferred candidate will exercise their democratic right to do so.” With opposition lawmakers opting out, the incoming parliament will include many political newcomers. reuters