Kuwaitis went to the polls Saturday for the first election contested by the opposition in nearly four years amid fresh disputes over cuts in subsidies due to falling oil revenues.
Turnout was high at many of the 100 polling stations and at some centres hit 30 percent a few hours after voting opened, according to state-run Kuwait Television.
While Kuwait’s two previous elections yielded poor turnout due to an opposition boycott, voters said they were encouraged by more candidates running this time around.
Kuwaiti women flash their passports as they arrive to cast their votes at a polling station in Kuwait City on November 26, 2016 ©Yasser Al-Zayyat (AFP)
“Their return is needed to strike a political balance in the country. They are more capable of monitoring the government actions,” retired voter Ibrahim Al-Tulaihi told AFP at a polling station south of Kuwait City.
“A wise opposition is needed because we don’t want more political disputes,” Jarrah Mohammad, a government employee, said after casting his ballot.
Unusually for the oil-rich Gulf Arab states, Kuwait has an elected parliament with powers to hold ministers to account, even though senior members of the ruling Al-Sabah family hold all top cabinet posts.
The set-up has led to repeated standoffs between lawmakers and the ruling family and this is the seventh general election in a decade.
The election comes against a backdrop of discontent among Kuwaiti citizens over mounting cutbacks in the cradle-to-grave welfare system they have long enjoyed as a slump in world oil prices hits government revenues.
The emir dissolved the last parliament after MPs called for ministers to be grilled over the cuts to state subsidies.
Islamist candidate Hamad al-Matar, a former MP, said he expects the opposition to win a majority in the 50-seat parliament and prevent the government from raising charges.
“There will be no charges on citizens because we have no problem with finances. We have a problem with government management and corruption,” Matar told AFP.
The opposition is fielding 30 candidates among a total of 293 hopefuls who include 14 women.
Women, who have had the right to vote in Kuwait since 2005, were already queueing outside polling stations when voting began at 8 am (0500 GMT).
“We want the next parliament to stop the government from hiking prices,” said pensioner Maasouma Abdullah.
“We want the government to begin taxing the rich and pay great attention to the low-income sections,” added Maha Khorshid, an education ministry employee.
Opposition candidates campaigned heavily for economic and social reform and an end to what they charge is rampant corruption.
- Bleak economic backdrop -
The election also comes with Kuwait facing its most acute budget crisis in years. Oil income, which accounts for 95 percent of government revenues, has nosedived by 60 percent over the past two years.
And the emirate has fewer alternatives than its Gulf neighbours, partly because of its elected legislature, analysts say.
“It has built an economic model completely funded by oil and natural gas revenue to support its workforce, but with its empowered parliament it has less flexibility than any other state in the region to abandon that model,” US-based intelligence firm Stratfor said in a recent report.
Polls are due to close at 8 pm (1700 GMT) with first results expected after midnight (2100 GMT).
Kuwaiti citizens make up around 30 percent of the emirate’s population of 4.4 million. A total of 483,000 are eligible to vote.
A Kuwaiti man writes on his ballot paper before casting his vote for the parliamentary elections at a polling station in Kuwait City on November 26, 2016 ©Yasser Al-Zayyat (AFP)
Kuwaitis attend an election campaign meeting for the upcoming parliamentary election, in Kuwait City ©Yasser Al-Zayyat (AFP)
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