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Kuwaiti women cast their votes during parliamentary elections in Kuwait City on September 29, 2022. Image Credit: AFP

Kuwait: In a brief June speech delivered on behalf of the country’s ruler, Kuwait was offered a route out of years of political impasse. Elections on Thursday will go a long way to deciding whether the vision becomes a reality.

The 85-year-old emir delegated his address to Crown Prince Sheikh Meshaal Al Ahmed Al Sabah, who’s only about four years his junior. But there’s evidence it has injected dynamism into Kuwaiti politics gridlocked by disputes.

State institutions have been shaken up, officials removed and promises given that elections for a National Assembly speaker and key committees won’t face interference, a major point of contention after the last poll in 2020. Now Kuwaitis are being asked to elect a 50-member legislature willing to do its bit. It’s a crucial time for the OPEC exporter which wields a $700 billion sovereign wealth fund.

Praise has come from an unlikely quarter. Some of the steps unveiled “were impressive,” said top opposition figure Ahmad Al Saadoun. The 87-year-old former speaker is vying for a seat in parliament after opposition leaders largely lifted a 12-year boycott called to protest rules they said favoured pro-government candidates.

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Kuwaitis queue up at a polling station. Image Credit: AFP

At a recent rally, Al Saadoun said the government had opened “the road for citizens, and it is now the responsibility of citizens, the responsibility of the people.”

There’s no guarantee the progress won’t unravel, of course. Officials have in the past pulled the plug on reforms to overhaul governance when they appeared likely to curb the power enjoyed by unelected leaders. Parliament can debate and delay policymaking, and hold ministers to account, but the ultimate say on all matters of state rests with the emir.

And a ban on political parties means that while opposition candidates are expected to win a majority, there’s no guarantee they’ll unite around a common agenda.

In the June speech, the crown prince - who was given more powers as Emir Sheikh Nawaf Al Ahmed Al Sabah travelled abroad for medical treatment - also issued a veiled warning: if the election dragged the country deeper into impasse, Kuwaitis would “face measures with serious consequences,” he said, without elaborating.

A woman shows her passport as she votes. Image Credit: AFP

Around 800,000 voters, just over half the citizen population, can choose from 305 candidates, just 22 of them women. Despite women winning the right to vote 17 years ago, there wasn’t a single female lawmaker in the last National Assembly.

It was dissolved two months ago as deadlock continued to stall policies seen as critical to the economy, including legislation to let the government return to global debt markets.

Campaigning has, though, been dominated by corruption, the state of Kuwait’s education and health sectors and housing, while a series of attacks on women sparked public anger.

Some officials fear there hasn’t been enough attention given to crucial decisions on diversifying an economy dominated by oil revenue and expanding sectors such as entertainment - steps being followed with greater zeal in regional powerhouse Saudi Arabia.

“Is it conceivable that candidate platforms don’t include crucial issues about economic security?” Kuwait Finance House Chairman Hamad Al Marzouq tweeted this week.