KUWAIT CITY: Kuwaitis head to the ballot box next month for the fourth time in six years in a crucial poll, hoping to end lingering political disputes and to put the oil-rich Gulf state’s economy back on track.
The polls will be held against the backdrop of heightened sectarian tensions between the majority Sunni Muslims and minority Shias, echoing regional conflicts, allegations of widespread corruption and non-stop crises since 2006.
The February 2 snap election was called after former premier Sheikh Nasser Mohammad Al-Ahmad Al-Sabah and his cabinet were forced to resign in late November following massive popular protests led by youth activists and opposition MPs.
Parliament was dissolved a week later.
Youth activists led by opposition MPs stormed the parliament building in mid-November after riot police prevented them from marching to the home of the ex-prime minister following allegations of corruption.
At least 13 ex-MPs were interrogated by the public prosecutor over a corruption scandal and the opposition claimed that Sheikh Nasser transferred millions of dollars of public funds into his bank accounts abroad.
"The 2012 elections are the most crucial and the most dangerous in Kuwait’s history," veteran opposition leader and former three-time speaker Ahmad Al-Saadun told an election rally last week.
"The next national assembly is the most important in Kuwait’s political history … Everyone is waiting to see the MPs whom they hope will rescue Kuwait from further deterioration," independent candidate Mubarak Al-Harees said.
Thirty-eight of the original 50 members of the dissolved parliament, in addition to 17 former MPs and ministers, are among 330 candidates contesting the election.
Twenty-four female candidates are running, including four who made history by becoming the first Kuwaiti women to win parliamentary seats in 2009. Women make up about 54 percent of Kuwait’s 400,000 voters.
Candidates from various political affiliations in this oil-rich emirate have set up hundreds of fancy tents where they stage election campaigns at night followed by buffet dinners.
The issue of corruption has dominated the campaign trail, while calls for fundamental political reforms, the independence of the judiciary and reviving the sagging economy are also prominent.
Despite massive wealth, development in Kuwait has come to a near total standstill due to non-stop political crises between the opposition and the government, forcing the cabinet to resign seven times in just over five years.
Youth activists are also playing an important role in the election campaign, siding with the opposition. They have launched their own reform plan known as "Kuwait charter 2012" and have invited candidates to participate in debates.
Political parties are illegal in Kuwait, but many groupings are operating freely and some have fielded candidates.
The main battle appears to be between the opposition, a loose formation of Islamist, liberal, nationalist and independent candidates on the one hand and candidates who have been loyal to the former government and premier on the other.
"It is a battle raging between the forces of reform and those of corruption," declared Salafi Islamist candidate and ex-MP Khaled Al-Sultan.
At stake is control over the 50-member parliament. The cabinet is appointed by the emir from the ruling Al-Sabah family, whose members also occupy the premiership and key ministerial posts.
Prominent Shia candidate and ex-MP Hussein Al-Qallaf, an ally of the former premier, however charged that the opposition wants to share power with the ruling family and that they will lead Kuwait into a state of chaos.
No one has ever challenged the ruling family, in power for over 250 years, but political groups and candidates are increasingly pressing for deep democratic reforms, including demands for a constitutional monarchy.
The opposition is optimistic it will increase its parliamentary seats from 18 to at least 25, with Sunni Islamists forming the main bloc, in a bid to control a house with legislative and monitoring powers.