Last updated: December 2, 2012 6:47 pm

Kuwait suffers lowest election turnout

A Kuwaiti man casts his ballot©Getty

Turnout in Kuwait’s parliamentary elections hit a record low amid an opposition boycott that has laid bare the deepening political crisis in the oil-rich Gulf state.

Voter participation fell to 40.3 per cent in Saturday’s ballot, the lowest in Kuwait’s election history, according to initial figures from its ministry of information. Opposition groups said the number was lower.

Tens of thousands of Kuwaitis protested on the eve of a poll, the latest mass public demonstration in a power struggle that is being monitored by the autocratic monarchs who rule the region’s other petrostates.

“It’s clear that the boycott was very successful,” said Shafeeq Ghabra, professor of political science at Kuwait University. “But it will not end the deadlock.”

The political crisis facing Opec’s third-largest oil producer is unlikely to ease because the opposition is expected to appeal the election on legal grounds and continue the public rallies.

Kuwaiti activists estimated turnout was as low as 26.7 per cent in a poll marked by heavy voting in pro-government areas and mass stayaways in opposition districts.

The new parliament, in which members of the country’s mostly loyalist Shia Muslim minority won a record 17 of the 50 seats, is likely to be more co-operative with the government as it tries to push through contentious spending plans.

The mass boycott is a blow to Kuwait’s prestige and its self-image of being more democratic than its neighbours, thanks to its 50-year-old parliament and greater tradition of public debate.

The opposition rejected the poll because of the decision by the ruling emir, Sheikh Sabah al-Ahmad al-Sabah, to alter the voting rules, allowing each person to vote for only one candidate instead of four.

Members of the loose opposition of tribal groups, Islamists and liberals have strongly criticised the change, given that it was made without the approval of parliament as an emergency decree.

“It’s not about the elections, it’s about pushing the main demands,” said Khaled al-Fadhala, a popular youth activist, who boycotted the polls. “We’re going to refocus on the original plan and keep fighting.”

The opposition’s broader demands are for the introduction of political parties to Kuwait, a prime minister chosen on merit rather than from the ruling al-Sabah family, and for the cabinet to reflect the majority in parliament.

Pro-regime commentators in other Gulf states have seized on Kuwait’s troubles as evidence that even its system of very limited western-style democracy – with the emir still wielding absolute authority – is unsuited to the region.

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