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Kuwaiti voters sniff at democracy

(First Edition)

IT WAS President George Bush who dashed any hopes that Operation Desert Storm would blow through the traditional states of the Arabian peninsula. 'The war wasn't fought about democracy in Kuwait,' he declared in July 1991. 'The war was fought about aggression against Kuwait.' The winds of change evaporated like sand devils.

The elections on Monday for a new 50-seat national assembly in Kuwait are only the merest approximation to a democratic experiment in the Western sense. The powers of the new assembly will be greatly circumscribed. Only a tiny fraction of the adult population may vote. Women are not enfranchised. Only males over 21 who can trace their ancestry in the emirate to before 1920 can vote. This excludes all naturalised citizens, and the Bedoun stateless Arabs. No more than 81,400 of Kuwait's 600,000 citizens (more than half of these are under age) have registered to vote. Parties are not permitted, though many of the 278 candidates are standing in groupings.

Of course, Kuwait has had to cope with the trauma of invasion and brutal occupation by the Iraqis, followed by liberation and reconstruction. Reports of human rights abuses did not come to an end with the Iraqi withdrawal. According to testimony to the US Congress by the New York-based Lawyers' Committee for Human Rights, arbitrary arrest, torture and summary executions continued throughout March and April 1991, perpetrated by Kuwaitis. Tens of thousands of former residents of Kuwait were forced to leave the country through intimidation and harassment in what the report said 'amounted to a Kuwaiti version of ethnic cleansing'. Most of the victims were from Arab countries. Because they were not part of the coalition against Iraq they were considered by Kuwaitis to have collaborated with the invader: Iraqis, Yemenis and Sudanese as well as Palestinians.

The desire for vengeance may have been understandable. But the brutality of the occupation and the subsequent purges have unleashed violent forces.

The report notes that greater respect for human rights depends on the commitment of the ruling Sabah family to the 1962 constitution. That empowered a national assembly with privileges unique in the peninsula, where the assorted sheikhdoms, emirates and sultanates all were governed exclusively by ruling dynasties. But even before the Kuwaiti invasion, the national assembly had been dissolved - in 1986, at a critical phase in the Iran-Iraq war. The government declared there was a foreign conspiracy against the country. The Emir then grew accustomed to rule by decree. Power remains concentrated in the hands of the ruling family, whose members have the main government portfolios.

These elections will not change the basic realities of political life in Kuwait. Parliament will act more as a watchdog than a legislative body. The main thrust of the opposition is to gain greater accountability of the government and those in authority for what the Democratic Forum's election manifesto calls 'failure, negligence and carelessness shown by persons in authority before and during the Iraqi invasion'.