Stumping for Votes, Kuwaiti Style

FROM a distance, at night, you think you are approaching a fairground. On either side of the four-lane highway, the wide sandy spaces are bright with thousands of neon lights, colored bulbs, and spotlights strung around giant tents.

This is "Democracy Street," as Kuwaitis have dubbed it, a center of the action in the final run-up to Monday's elections. Seventeen candidates for parliament have set up their campaign tents here to spread their messages.

On one corner, Sayyid Hussein al-Ghalaf, in black turban and robes, preaches Shiite fundamentalism to the faithful gathered around him on the ground. Across the street, inside a thickly carpeted, air-conditioned tent, the country's largest Ford dealer, Ahmed al-Tukheim, offers generous platters of rice and mutton to those who come to hear him press his case.

Down the road, Muhammed al-Haffiti, an independent candidate who has made jokes his campaign's stock-in-trade, regales his audience with wisecracks as they lounge on long divans arranged around a broad rectangle of rugs under the night sky.

So goes - in Kuwait's idiosyncratic style of democracy - the hectic race for a parliamentary seat in the first Kuwaiti elections since Iraqi troops were ejected in February 1991.

Only about half of the 1.2 million people who live in this country are Kuwaiti, but not even all Kuwaitis will be able to cast ballots. Only 81,400 "first class" citizens - males over 21 who can trace their ancestry in the country back to 1921, when the city's mud wall was rebuilt - have the right to vote.

Such limitations to democracy are among the issues debated in the nightly campaign meetings, especially since Kuwaiti women have been pressing hard to be given the vote this year.

The country's complex citizenship laws, which divide the population into several categories and leave thousands without citizenship at all, have also come in for criticism from opposition candidates, who say all the Kuwaitis who endured the seven-month Iraqi invasion suffered equally.

But the top priority for most voters, say the candidates, is security in a country still traumatized by its experiences at Iraqi hands. Though the emir, Sheikh Jabir al-Ahmed al-Jabir al-Sabah, has signed defense treaties with the United States, France, and Britain, many Kuwaitis are wondering what more they can do to protect their land.

At the same time, they are debating whether to "open the file" on the invasion, in the local parlance - whether to get to the bottom of just how the ruling Sabah family led Kuwait into the tragedy of the invasion.

"If your house burns down, you need to do more than just extinguish the flames," argues Ismael al-Shatti, a candidate for the moderate Sunni Islamic Constitutional Movement. "You want to know how the house burned so you can prevent another accident."

The 50 members of the next parliament will have to decide such issues, using their rights under the 1961 Constitution to review major government decisions and question ministers. In the back of their minds, no doubt, will be the fate of the last parliament, closed by the emir in 1986 for "abusing democracy" when members began questioning ministers aggressively.

But there is less chance now that Sheikh Jabir could resort to such tactics, according to most opposition figures, not least because of international pressure from the countries that helped free Kuwait. The royal family promised the elections after an October 1990 meeting of prominent Kuwaitis in Saudi Arabia.

"Kuwait became part of the new-world-order promise," said one voter, as he listened to a campaign pitch on Democracy Street Wednesday night. "Putting things back to the status quo ante would be very embarrassing to a lot of the coalition partners."

At the same time popular feeling in favor of democracy is running higher than before the invasion, and the debate is deeper. Candidates and voters say this campaign is the most open that Kuwait has ever seen.

Even Mr. Ghalaf, whose Iranian appearance and Shiite message are seen as subversive by many Kuwaitis, said that "we say everything in this free atmosphere, and we are afraid of no one save Allah."

Though the tent styles differ up and down Democracy Street - from simple Bedouin awnings propped with poles to elaborate affairs with steel girders - tiny cups of cardomom-flavored coffee and glasses of sweet black tea are available everywhere. In the cool night breeze, men recline on cushions, lounge in overstuffed armchairs, or sit in rows on sofas as they chat or listen to the candidate, and ponder how they will vote on Monday.

Not all of them are convinced that these elections will bring real change, because no one knows how the seven opposition groups calling for reform will fare.

And many of them have an eye on a vote elsewhere. "I am much more worried about [President] Bush than about these elections," confesses Saad Hamed al-Barak, a computer systems engineer. "Bush has such an emotional appeal to all Kuwaitis."

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