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hunalkuwait

Sunday, July 02, 2006

Analysis: Kuwait`s elections and reforms

AMMAN, Jordan (UPI) -- The democratic exercise in Kuwait`s early parliamentary elections may have given the oil-rich emirate something to boast about, but the polls seem to have backfired against the regime with the opposition`s sweeping victory.

The new emir of the oil-rich Gulf state, Sheikh Sabah al-Ahmad al-Sabah, dissolved parliament on May 21 and ordered early elections in an effort to end a political crisis between the government and legislature over electoral reforms.

But the results of the June 29 elections, which brought to parliament an even bigger opposition of liberal and Islamist members, constitutes a setback for the al-Sabah regime as the new parliament is expected to push harder for democratic reforms and fighting corruption.

The opposition swept two-thirds of the 50-seat parliament as a coalition of 33 liberal and Islamic candidates won, up from 29 members in the dissolved legislature, with several independents who can sway in favor of reforms.

Although these were the first polls to include women in this small oil-rich state, none of the 28 women candidates managed to grab a parliamentary seat.

While al-Sabah congratulated the candidates on their victory as Kuwait set a democratic example for the rest of the Gulf and Arab region, analysts say the emir, who assumed power in January, has more to worry about now as he takes the next two weeks to form a new government, in which fifteen cabinet members are entitled to vote in parliament.

The reformers in the dissolved parliament, most of whom were re-elected, had threatened to stop cooperating with the government if it did not reduce the number of voting constituencies from 25 to five in an effort to stop vote-buying and other irregularities. The opposition had rejected a government offer to reduce the districts to ten and the dispute gave birth to a so-called 'orange revolution' of active, yet tame, youth taking to the streets calling for reforms to fight what they say is state-sponsored corruption.

The straw that broke the camel`s back and prompted the emir`s dissolution of parliament was a threat by reformer parliament members to grill the prime minister, Sheikh Nasser Mohammad al-Sabah, a nephew of the emir.

Analysts say with a larger opposition in the new parliament that ran on a platform of reforming the electoral bill and fighting corruption, the ruler of Kuwait will now need to shape a new government that excludes key ministers the opposition accuses of corruption and inefficiency, such as outgoing energy and information ministers, Sheikh Ahmad al-Fahd al-Sabah and Mohammad al-Sanousi respectively.

While the Kuwaiti parliament has no constitutional powers to vote out cabinet or prime ministers, it can declare its refusal to cooperate with the government, leaving the next step to the emir, who would either dismiss the prime minister and appoint a new cabinet, or dissolve parliament and call for new elections.

Analysts say the fact that reformers gained yet more ground under the disputed 25-constituency system should give more weight to the pro-government forces seeking to maintain so many districts. The pro-government forces could argue these polls prove that the number of districts has no effect on the voting exercise and does not necessarily favor one trend over another in a country where political parties are banned, but groups of different political trends are free to work.

However, the opposition victory -- even under the disputed system -- has given more strength to the reformers in their demands to change the elections bill and has put the emir in a tight position that may lead him to finally yield to diluting the voting districts to five.

Kuwaiti analysts say if the emir wants to avoid plunging the country into another political crisis between the establishment and the reformers, who are gaining more grassroots support, he would need to name a new government with clear instructions to agree on the sought-after elections bill. After that, he may resort to dissolving parliament again and order fresh polls according to a five-constituency system. Otherwise, the emir would allow parliament to live out its four-year term and hold the next elections in 2010 under the new system.

Either way, the opposition would have achieved a peaceful victory unseen in the conservative Arab Gulf region where free elections are practically non-existent. Such a victory could also set a precedent that may unleash more demands for deep-rooted reforms deemed taboo and revolutionary, threatening the status quo of ruling families.

The campaigns during Kuwait`s elections saw unprecedented sharp criticism of the government, and by de facto the ruling al-Sabah family, questioning its role in the running of the state`s affairs where the emir has the final say in all matters.

Some Islamist candidates, having won 21 seats in parliament, are even seeking to turn the emirate, which sits on 10 percent of the world`s oil reserves, into a constitutional monarchy where the prime minister and cabinet members are not appointed by the emir and his relatives.

However, once the issues that united the forces from the far-left to the far-right under the umbrella of the opposition have been resolved, the coalition of the reformers may easily collapse and restore strength to the regime.

The new reformer parliament members extend from Islamists seeking an Islamic state system and opposing women participation in the elections, to secular liberals aspiring for a more westernized Kuwait.

Analysts expect the government to capitalize on the disharmony between the two sides to weaken the opposition and move on with its agenda that would maintain the status quo as much as possible.

In the next few months, Arab eyes will undoubtedly remain fixed on this tiny state in anticipation of the kind of change the people hope, and ruling families dread, would infect the rest of the region.

Copyright 2006 by United Press International

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