This past Saturday a record number of voters turned out to cast their ballots in local parliamentary elections in the State of Kuwait. The Emir of Kuwait dissolved parliament in March of this year, 2 years earlier than the full-term of office was set to end, due to continued rifts between parliament and the government. This latest election has seen a complete overhaul of the Kuwaiti voting system, which has in the past been based completely on big money and more of it. In 2006, parliamentary elections took over the country by storm with placards littering every single road and highway in Kuwait. Vote-buying was rampant and voters were courted by campaigners with lavish dinners in custom-built diwaniyas and posh gift bags for all guests complete with designer perfumes, watches and Swiss chocolates. The 2006 elections also saw women running in elections and voting for the very first time after decades of wrangling with the government, however none of the female candidates were elected. Kuwaiti women were granted full suffrage rights in 2005.
The most notable aspect about this year’s elections is that the government reigned in the exorbitant spending and cracked down on vote buying, which has plagued past elections. The government also completely banned the use of placards on public roads as a road safety hazard and issued heavy fines for anyone ignoring the law. The Interior Ministry was out in full force monitoring all the campaigning activities and resorted to the use of armored vehicles and tear gas to keep crowds at campaigner’s headquarters in line. Two Kuwaiti candidates were arrested for buying votes and hundreds of people were arrested for taking part in illegal primary elections based on tribal alliances. Several voters had their ballots confiscated and destroyed by election officials as they were caught using mobile phones to take a photo of the checked ballot which Kuwaiti officials say is clear evidence of vote-buying.
Remarkably this year’s election was touted to be the year of the Kuwaiti woman with a record number of 27 female candidates running for office. Many commentators assumed that women would take several seats in Parliament as more than 60% of registered voters are female. However, this was not the case. Not a single female candidate was voted into Parliament. The reason being that most Kuwaiti women, and men for that matter, vote according to tribal ties with their families rather than supporting their own gender. All hope is not lost, however, as many Kuwaiti women are looking to future elections when women will one day break the barriers of a male-dominated society and government. “I know in my heart that one day Kuwaiti women will be a part of parliament,” says Kuwaiti Saira Al-Sane, “I just know it.”
Hopes are not very positive that this new parliament, made up primarily of Sunnis with only a handful of Shi’a, will serve the full 4-year term of office or do much to change things in Kuwait. The cost of inflation for basic consumer goods, rent and private schools are crippling the residents of Kuwait. And Kuwaitis, who enjoy innumerable perks thanks to high oil revenues including free schooling, free health care, and monetary benefits are resistant to reforms for the sake of the country that would change the posh way of life they have grown accustom to. Ideas that were put on the table by the last parliament included implementing a new income tax law on all residents of Kuwait and increasing the salaries of Kuwaitis working in the public sector. It remains to be seen if these proposals will be put into effect or remain shelved.