Economic reforms weigh on Kuwait's parliamentary election

November 24, 2016 11:34 AM EST

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By Ahmed Hagagy

KUWAIT (Reuters) - Kuwaitis vote on Saturday for a new parliament the government hopes will help push through reforms to a lavish welfare state to curb a budget deficit caused by weak oil prices.

Nearly 300 candidates are vying for 50 seats in an assembly that has legislative powers but which critics say has long acted as a drag on attempts to strengthen fiscal discipline in one of the world's wealthiest countries.

The parliament was due to run until July 2017, but the emir, Sheikh Sabah al-Ahmad al-Sabah, dissolved it in October, saying "security challenges" in the region - an apparent reference to wars in Iraq and Syria - should be met by consulting the popular will.

But campaigning has focused mainly on austerity measures adopted by the government in the past year after officials announced a deficit forecast at 9.5 billion dinars for the 2016/17 fiscal year. The OPEC state relies on oil for about 90 percent of its revenues.

Some opposition figures, who boycotted 2012 and 2013 polls over changes to voting rules that activists said favored pro-government candidates, are participating in this election.

Although the deficit is likely to be smaller than forecast as it was based on an oil price of $25 a barrel, many Kuwaitis fear the government will try to further raise prices and cut many of the perks they have enjoyed for decades, including free health care, education, subsidized basic products, free housing or land plots and interest-free loans to many citizens.

The cabinet has approved economic reforms, including increasing gasoline prices by as much as 80 percent from September.

"Candidates' speeches are dealing with real issues that matter, such as health, education and corruption. This means that everybody rejects the status quo and wants it to be fixed," said BuSaud, in his mid-50s, who declined to be identified further.

"We don't want quick reforms or to go to the brink or to have a clash between the government and the assembly. We just want a change in government thinking and to stop looking at the citizen's pocket when it faces problems," he said.

OPEN POLITICAL SYSTEM

Kuwait, a U.S. ally occupied by Iraq in 1990-91, has relatively open politics by Gulf standards and has avoided the protests that have rocked several Arab states since 2011.

But a series of assemblies have been dissolved in recent years due to power struggles between the opposition and the cabinet, in which the ruling family holds top posts.

While the assembly can pass legislation and question ministers, the emir has the final say in state matters. He picks a prime minister who selects a cabinet.

While formal political parties are banned, the outgoing assembly was widely seen as relatively friendly towards the government, but some lawmakers have expressed doubts about government attempts at belt tightening.Candidates have sought to woo voters with promises to defend citizens and keep the country safe.

"I presented many laws and the most important of which is the independence of the judiciary," said Al al-Khamees, an MP who is running for re-election. "The second thing is not to touch the citizen's pocket," he said in an interview with the local al-Rai TV posted on social media.

Kuwaiti Fouad Zayed al-Kabsi wrote on Twitter: "If Gulf states start considering citizens' pockets as part of the solution, then they must start looking at this citizen as a partner in the decision making."

(Writing by Sami Aboudi; Editing by Janet Lawrence)



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