Divided Kuwait limps toward boycott-hit elections



Kuwait City: The message from Kuwait's emir is blunt heading into this week's parliamentary elections: Opposition factions should express dissent in the legislature, and not in the streets. The response from the opposition is equally uncompromising: We're not satisfied with what we can accomplish through parliament, so we're boycotting the vote.

There is little middle ground as Kuwait stumbles toward its second election this year for the most politically empowered parliament in the Gulf Arab states, which serves as a check on the emir, Sheik Sabah Al Ahmed Al Sabah. Violent protests and crackdowns on activists -- until recently rare in Kuwait -- have contributed to the high-stakes tension.

The outcome Saturday is certain to hand the ruling family and its allies a near-sweep of friendly lawmakers. Yet that is not necessarily good news for the stability of a country that has ricocheted from one political crisis to the next for nearly a year, including street clashes between security forces and an opposition coalition that ranges from hardline Islamists to youth activists.

For years, that legislature has served as a forum for the opposition to press their demands. But with the opposition's boycott likely to take them into self-exile from the political system, the worry is their new soapbox will be the street demonstrations like those that have engulfed many other Arab states in the past two years.

The potential fallout goes well beyond its borders. Any major upheavals in OPEC member Kuwait have potential repercussions on oil prices and the Pentagon's plans to use the nation as its hub for ground forces in efforts to counter the growth of Iran's military.

Gulf Arab rulers have so far ridden out the Arab Spring uprisings through a combination of factors including crackdowns and payouts to buy off potential dissenters. But the Gulf's biggest unrest by far -- a 21-month-old revolt against Bahrain's Western-allied monarchy -- shows no sign of easing and poses some the same quandaries as Kuwait for Washington: the need to maintain critical security alliances, but also to pay attention to shifting political forces in the region.

"There is a danger that the tensions between a ruling family (in Kuwait) intent on preserving its power and privilege and an energized opposition bent on security meaningful reform might escalate into open confrontation," said Kristian Coates-Ulrichsen, a research fellow who follows Gulf affairs at the London School of Economics.

"The example of Bahrain shows how everyone loses out in this scenario," he added, "but that alone is no guarantee that Kuwaitis can or will pull back from the brink."

PTI