DUBAI, United Arab Emirates (AP) — Voters in Kuwait were casting ballots on Tuesday for a third time in as many years, with little hope of ending a prolonged gridlock between the ruling family and assertive lawmakers after the judiciary dissolved the legislature earlier this year.
Kuwait is alone among Gulf Arab countries in having a democratically elected assembly that exerts some checks on the ruling family. But in recent years, the political system has been paralyzed by infighting and unable to enact even basic reforms.
“People on the ground are not very optimistic right now about change, and that’s why you see this frustration and probably a low voter turnout and low number of people running,” said Dania Thafer, executive director at the Gulf International Forum, a Washington-based think-tank.
The polls will close at 8 p.m. and the results are expected on Wednesday.
The last election, held a mere eight months ago, delivered a mandate for change, bringing 27 new lawmakers into the 50-member assembly, including conservative Islamists and two women. Some had served in earlier parliaments.
But in March, Kuwait’s Constitutional Court annulled the decree dissolving the previous parliament, which was elected in 2020, effectively restoring it. A few weeks later, the ruling Al Sabah family dissolved that parliament for a second time, setting up this week’s vote.
Kristin Diwan, senior resident scholar at the Arab Gulf States Institute in Washington, says the turmoil partly stems from divisions within the ruling family following the death in 2020 of Sheikh Sabah Al Ahmad Al Sabah, a veteran diplomat who had ruled the country for nearly 15 years.
The 91-year-old was succeeded by his ailing half-brother, Sheikh Nawaf Al Ahmad Al Sabah, with Crown Prince Sheikh Meshal Al Ahmed Al Jaber Al Sabah assuming day to day rule. Both are in their 80s, and the line of succession after Sheikh Meshal is unclear.
Another member of the royal family, Sheikh Ahmad Nawaf Al Sabah, the current emir’s son, was appointed prime minister in 2022 but has recently emerged as a lightning rod of criticism.
“There’s a lack of clear direction and energy coming from the top,” Diwan said. “There is kind of an overall vacuum where you can see other political institutions and social forces kind of taking advantage and stepping into that gap.”
The emir appoints the prime minister and the Cabinet, and can dissolve parliament at any time. But lawmakers can approve or block legislation, and can question ministers and call for their removal. There are no political parties.
Two former parliamentary speakers are hoping to return to the relatively influential office.
Marzouq al-Ghanim, the scion of an influential family and a prominent member of the country’s powerful business community, led the assembly elected in 2020. He recently unleashed scathing criticism on the prime minister, calling him a “danger to the country” and further undermining his authority.
As speaker, al-Ghanim “was willing to use all the tools that he had within the parliament to really concentrate power … in a way that was more authoritarian,” Diwan said. His harsh criticism of the prime minister, a prominent member of the ruling family, was “really striking,” she added.
He will likely face off against Ahmed al-Saadoun, a veteran politician who managed to unite a broad array of opposition lawmakers in the parliament that convened last year. They have pushed for policies that would more widely disperse the country’s massive oil wealth, including debt relief for consumer loans, which the government views as fiscally irresponsible.
Kuwait has the sixth largest oil reserves and is among the world’s wealthiest countries, with cradle-to-grave welfare for its 1.5 million citizens. But many say the government has not properly invested in education, health care and other services.
Opposition figures have also called for electoral reforms that would bring more women and young people into the assembly, including a return to an earlier system in which people could vote for more than one candidate in their district.
“There’s a feeling that if people have only one vote, it forces political blocs to make a lot of difficult decisions about who to run,” said Courtney Freer, a researcher at the London School of Economics and Political Science.
“It also makes it harder for women candidates, who are already disadvantaged,” she said.
Nick El Hajj, The Associated Press