Kuwait is holding parliamentary elections across the country on Saturday.
The elections come at a time when the wealthy OPEC member state is facing a liquidity crisis caused by low oil prices and the coronavirus pandemic, and the government is trying to boost state finances to plug a budget deficit.
Established in the 1960s, Kuwait’s unicameral National Assembly is regarded as the most powerful parliament in the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), comprised of 50 members who are directly elected every four years.
Unlike other Gulf countries, Kuwait’s parliament seats more elected than appointed members, all of whom are independents since political parties are banned.
The coronavirus has forced the 342 candidates to campaign via Twitter, Instagram, Zoom and other forms of technology. As of December 4, the country had more than 143,000 confirmed cases of COVID-19 and nearly 900 deaths.
As a result, voter turnout has proved a concern. However, local media reported in October that measures will be taken, including the presence of clinics in all 102 polling stations, in addition to social distancing and mandatory use of masks.
Corruption, debt crisis, and the number of women candidates have been prominent issues for the election.
Fighting corruption has featured prominently during the candidates’ campaigns, both for newcomers and those who are running for re-election like independent legislator Omar al-Tabtabaee.
“The whole system is corrupt,” al-Tabtabaee told Al Jazeera last month.
“There’s corruption in our projects, in how they choose civil servants. No Kuwaiti is happy about our situation.”
Cinzia Bianco, a research fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations, underscored “mismanagement of public funds” as the key issue.
In a bid to protect the country from the wave of uprisings that swept through the region in 2011, then-Emir Sheikh Sabah al-Sabah ordered 1,000 dinars (about $3,300 at current exchange rate) grants and free food coupons for all Kuwaitis. The emir’s gesture of solidarity did little to dissipate the grievances.
“By now, it’s not a flare-up of a momentary issue,” said Bianco in reference to the 2011 protest demands.
“It’s more like a consolidated question that definitely needs to be addressed.”
Economy: Oil and coronavirus
Kuwait entered a debt crisis. The unsolved issues that weighed on the population about 10 years ago have been further exacerbated by the economic effects of the pandemic coupled with crashing oil prices.
Ratings agency Moody’s downgraded the rentier state this year for the first time ever, while the country’s deficit is expected to hit 40 percent of its gross domestic product this year, according to Kuwait’s national bank.
The finance minister warned that soon the government would not be able to pay salaries. This in turn could pave the way to a new wave of protests in a country where low oil prices and health and liquidity crises have contributed to creating the perfect storm.
With roughly 90 percent of Kuwaitis working in the public sector, a cutback on state spending, pensions and salaries could risk pushing people back onto the street.
Given the precarious times they are living through, Kuwaitis are likely to lean towards candidates with the ability to retain the country’s lavish subsidies and generous benefits, including cheap electricity and petrol.