Security forces clamp down on pre-election meetings in Kuwait

18 April 2008
Accusations of vote buying stoke controversy surrounding May poll.

State security forces arrested dozens of Kuwaitis in raids on properties in the first two weeks of April, in a clampdown on political movements and tribal communities illegally selecting representatives ahead of the May parliamentary elections.

Accusations of vote buying among candidates are also stoking the controversy surrounding the elections set for 17 May.

Political parties and primary voting are illegal in Kuwait. However, to ensure they gain seats in the National Assembly (parliament), many tribes and political movements, such as the Islamists, hold secretive gatherings to agree in advance on who will receive their support in the forthcoming parliamentary election.

In one incident in early April, hundreds of tribal protesters attacked police with stones after the security forces attempted to stop an illegal primary, where members were trying to elect a candidate to represent them.

In a bid to avoid public disorder and illegal gatherings, the government has ordered the media to stop carrying advertisements publicising the locations of primaries, and from alluding to them in general reporting.

It has also tried, unsuccessfully, to put in place legislation prohibiting public gatherings being held without the approval of the Interior Ministry.

In a demonstration of the delicate balance of power in the state, the government has been forced to drop the proposal after a storm of protest from the press and human rights groups.

The legislation will now be presented to parliament after the elections, but observers say it is unlikely to be approved.

The elections will be the first to be held under a new election law that has reduced the number of constituencies in the country from 25 to five.

The reduction has been implemented in an effort to reduce illegal vote buying.

Candidates now have a far larger number of voters in their constituencies, and it is hoped this will discourage candidates from buying votes.

Despite this, there have been reports of votes being bought at up to KD1,000 ($3,703) each, with one candidate accused of buying up to 4,000 votes.

There are hopes among observers that Kuwait will elect its first female MP since women were given the right to vote and stand for election in 2005. Since 16 April, more than 200 Kuwaitis have registered to stand for election, nine of whom are women.

The elections were called in the wake of the entire cabinet resigning on 17 March, over a dispute with the National Assembly.

Parliament had been pressing for further pay rises for civil servants, which the cabinet resisted because of the strain it would place on the state's budget (MEED 21:3:08).

It was the latest episode in an increasingly fractious relationship between the legislature and the executive branch of government. The Emir of Kuwait Sheikh Sabah al-Ahmad al-Sabah has urged the two sides to co-operate.

However, observers say the latest elections are unlikely to resolve the situation as voters are likely to return a parliament with a similar make-up.

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