Dec 5th: Kuwaitis Ready to Vote Amidst Corona Crisis

Published December 2nd, 2020 - 02:40 GMT
Candidate for the upcoming Kuwaiti parliamentary election Khadija al-Qallaf talks to reporters at the Department of Elections in Kuwait City on the first day of candidate registration. (AFP)
Candidate for the upcoming Kuwaiti parliamentary election Khadija al-Qallaf talks to reporters at the Department of Elections in Kuwait City on the first day of candidate registration. (AFP)

Kuwait’s upcoming parliamentary elections this weekend derive special significance from the circumstances in which they are taking place.

The elections are the first since Kuwaiti Emir Sheikh Nawaf al-Ahmad al-Jaber al-Sabah took office on September 29 following the death of his half-brother, 91-year-old Sheikh Sabah al-Ahmad al-Jaber al-Sabah.

The elections also come at one of the most difficult economic and financial junctures in many years.

According to state figures, the country’s resources have declined sharply due to a steep drop in oil prices, with the outbreak of the coronavirus pandemic further exacerbating the situation and delaying the recovery of the country’s economy.

The National Assembly (parliament) that emerges after December 5 elections will be crucial to helping the new ruling elite in its efforts to find urgent solutions to the current crises and push for serious reforms.

One of the most important ways to achieve these goals is to ensure a minimum level of harmony and agreement between the legislative institution represented by parliament and the executive branch represented by the government.

But with the opposition weakened in recent years, no major political shifts are expected.

The Kuwaiti National Assembly consists of fifty members representing five electoral districts.

They are elected by direct, secret ballots for four-year parliamentary terms. Ministers are considered unelected members of the Assembly by virtue of their position and their number does not exceed one third of the total members, i.e. 16 ministers in addition to the prime minister.

As of 2016, Kuwait had a population of 4.5 million, with 1.3 million nationals and 3.2 million expatriates.

The number of males eligible to vote is 273,940, while the number of female voters stands at 293,754, according to statistics released by the Kuwaiti interior ministry.

The law grants the right to vote for every Kuwaiti citizen who has reached the age of 21, and excludes recently naturalised citizens. About 395 candidates, including 33 women, are competing to win the 50 seats.

Online shift

With mounting concerns about the spread of the coronavirus pandemic, this year’s campaign is mainly being fought on social networks and in the media.

Tweets, Snapchat videos, Instagram live feeds and electoral meetings via Zoom have taken the place of traditional campaigning, and candidates are pumping the money saved on catering into virtual campaigns.

The cost of advertising has shot up as a result, said Faysal Al-Sawagh, head of the Kuwaiti Federation of Electronic Media.

“Kuwaitis are using social networks to make their voices heard and hear ideas from the candidates,” he said.

The usual themes of election campaigns are a constant though, from promises to fight corruption and plans for youth employment to freedom of expression, housing, education and the thorny issue of the “bidoon,” Kuwait’s stateless minority.

Kuwaiti political analyst Muhammad al-Dossary told German News Agency that turnout in the upcoming elections will be marked by caution, in light of health measures taken to contain the spread of the pandemic.

He added that uncertainty surrounds the results of the upcoming elections, but expected there will be no change to the balance of power, even if new faces are elected.

He explained that the essential issue raised by candidates, especially the opposition, was the need to unify ranks and conduct a reconciliation process involving all citizens, including those sentenced for political issues and those in exile outside Kuwait.

When it comes to regional challenges and the role of the upcoming parliament, Dossary stressed that Kuwait will stick to the same approach of the late Emir Sheikh Sabah.

He explained that Kuwait’s parliament and government have always forged a consensus on foreign policy issues.

Political Islam currents are expected to win seats in the next parliament, with candidates from the Muslim Brotherhood, Salafists and some Islamist Shia groups participating.

Saving a fortune

Austerity measures imposed due to the coronavirus crisis has saved politicians a fortune, considering the average expense of fighting an election campaign can reach 100,000 Kuwaiti dinars (about $327,000), said one contender, Ali al-Ali.

“Spending has increased on electronic and traditional media instead,” the young lawyer said.

“These unusual circumstances are giving young candidates a better chance of winning, as they have already linked with voters in the past few years through social networks,” he said.

Another candidate, Sheikha Al-Jassem, is also pleased to have reduced her costs by not having to host elaborate dinners that politicians would normally throw a couple of times a week in the lead-up to the vote.

The philosophy professor, who is campaigning on a platform to defend women’s rights, said she is redoubling her efforts to promote herself on Twitter and Instagram.

“This time, social networks have become the battleground of the parliamentary elections,” she said.

A blow to some businesses

Kuwait has a dynamic political life with an active parliament that doesn’t hesitate to take the government to task. Its election campaigns are equally lively — in normal years.

In elections past, restaurateurs organised feasts for candidates, all aiming to impress voters with their generosity.

However, the loss of business is another blow to restaurateurs, who suffered through months of lockdown this year as the government sought to stem the spread of the coronavirus in Kuwait, which has registered more than 142,000 infections and nearly 900 deaths.

Campaign events can cost between 3,000 and 7,000 Kuwaiti dinars (about $10,000-$23,000), and draw as many as 2,000 guests in the country’s tribal regions, according to the Kuwaiti Federation of Restaurants.

Along with restaurants, companies that organise banquets under large tents, serving coffee and dates to voters, will be the big losers in this campaign, said the association’s director, Fahd al-Arbach.

“This period is usually the main driver of their business in normal times,” he said.

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