In Kuwait, opposition candidates return to ballot divided

AP News
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Posted: Nov 12, 2016 12:56 AM
In Kuwait, opposition candidates return to ballot divided

KUWAIT CITY (AP) — Kuwait's upcoming election will give the tiny emirate a chance to elect new representatives to what is arguably the Gulf's most powerful legislature, as the country is squeezed by low oil prices and fearful of extremist attacks.

But what does one prominent candidate think ranks among the greatest dangers facing this OPEC nation? Cross-fit.

"Competing athletes play in a mixed environment, with foreign and even some Kuwaiti women wearing indecent clothes, like sports bras, in a public and mixed environment," railed Waleed al-Tabtabaie, a prominent opposition figure. "This is shameful and unacceptable."

Al-Tabtabaie's comments and those of others show how splintered Kuwait's opposition is despite many now saying they'll take part in the Nov. 26 poll after boycotting the last election, which followed tumultuous Arab Spring protests.

Since parliament dissolved in late October, 454 hopefuls have registered to run for Kuwait's 50-seat parliament. Lawmakers on paper have four-year terms, though most parliaments are dissolved early in Kuwait.

Among those running are many who sat out of Kuwait's 2012 election, including conservative Islamists and liberal reformers. Others remain imprisoned, like opposition politician Mussalem al-Barrak, who is serving a two-year sentence for a political speech deemed offensive to the emir, Sheikh Sabah Al Ahmad Al Sabah.

"We believe that we delivered a clear message by boycotting the previous elections," said Mohammed al-Dallal, a member of the Islamic Constitutional Movement, Kuwait's version of the Muslim Brotherhood.

"However, despite the fact that things have not changed, we feel that the upcoming period necessitates that we participate in the elections," he said. "We need to take an active role in dealing with the extraordinary political and economic circumstances that the region is going through."

Kuwait allows far more public dissent than other countries in the region, many of which have outlawed the Brotherhood and jailed its members. Parliament routinely calls powerful politicians to account, and the recently dissolved group of lawmakers had planned to question a host of government officials in the coming weeks about widely unpopular subsidy cuts.

While Kuwait, a country slightly smaller than the U.S. state of New Jersey, has the world's sixth largest proven oil reserves, its economy has been reeling. The global price of oil has been halved from heights of over $100 a barrel in the summer of 2014, forcing the government to cut gasoline subsidies and scale back cradle-to-grave benefits for its 1.4 million citizens.

The stalwart U.S. ally has also grown increasingly worried about possible militant attacks. In 2015, an Islamic State-claimed suicide bombing at a Shiite mosque in Kuwait City killed 27 people and wounded scores. In October, an Egyptian who allegedly was an Islamic State supporter rammed a garbage truck into a vehicle carrying U.S. soldiers, wounding only himself.

Those concerns, coupled with 87-year-old Sheikh Sabah's advancing age, have raised questions about Kuwait's future. But so far, its government has been slow to address any of it.

The government is in some ways shackled by the political freedoms its citizens enjoy, ratings agency Moody's suggested in a note to investors in October.

"These democratic elements of the system ... can be particularly disruptive to government effectiveness, which has been repeatedly demonstrated by the government's inability to implement reforms," Moody's said.

Many candidates so far seem to be focusing on less urgent issues.

Al-Tabtabaie, who is sweating the arrival of Cross-fit, began his campaign with remarks about a ballistic missile launch by Shiite rebels in Yemen that Saudi Arabia denounced as being fired toward the Islamic holy city of Mecca.

Saleh al-Nafisi, a political science professor at the Gulf University for Science and Technology, said al-Tabtabaie's campaign showed the lack of a cohesive strategy among the Kuwaiti opposition, and risked inflaming sectarian tensions among Kuwait's Shiite and Sunni populations, who live together largely in peace.

"The opposition as it stands today is certainly fractured," he said. "Beyond its divisions and lack of leadership, there is no clear agenda of what they want to achieve."

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Associated Press writer Jon Gambrell in Dubai, United Arab Emirates, contributed to this report.