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In a vast, high-ceilinged tent, Ali al-Rashed sounded an anguished note as he delivered the first speech of his campaign for Parliament.

“Kuwait used to be No.1 in the economy, in politics, in sports, in culture, in everything,” he said, his voice floating out in the warm evening air to hundreds of potential voters seated on white, damask-lined chairs. “What happened?”

It is a question many people are asking as this tiny, oil-rich nation of 2.6 million people approaches its latest round of elections. And the unlikely answer being whispered, both here and in neighboring countries on the Persian Gulf, is: too much democracy.

In a region where autocracy is the rule, Kuwait is a remarkable exception, with a powerful and truculent elected Parliament that sets the emir’s salary and is the nation’s sole source of legislation. Women gained the right to vote and run for office two years ago, and a popular movement won further electoral changes.

But despite those gains, Kuwait has been overshadowed by its dynamic neighbors — Dubai, Abu Dhabi and Qatar — where economies are booming under absolute monarchies. Efforts to overhaul Kuwait’s sclerotic welfare state have stalled in its fractious and divided Parliament, and noisy scandals led the emir to dissolve the chamber last month for the second time in less than two years, forcing new elections.

All this has left many Kuwaitis deeply disenchanted with their 50-member elected legislature. The collapse of the Bush administration’s efforts to promote democracy in the region and the continuing chaos in Iraq, just to the north — once heralded as the birthplace of a new democratic model — have also contributed to a popular suspicion that democracy itself is one Western import that has not lived up to its advertising.

“People say democracy is just slowing us down, and that we’d be better off if we were more like Dubai,” said Waleed al-Sager, 24, who is advising his father’s campaign for Parliament.

Like many Kuwaitis, al-Sager quickly distanced himself from that view. But as the May 17 parliamentary elections approach, with near-constant coverage in a dozen new newspapers and on satellite TV stations, candidates refer again and again to a “halat ihbaat” — state of frustration.