KUWAITIS go to the polls today in the most open and vigorously contested parliamentary elections ever held in the Persian Gulf region.
Even so, "I am careful not to use the word "democracy' to describe what is going on here," says a Western diplomat.
The exclusion of all women from the electoral rolls, along with all those graded "second class" citizens, not to mention the foreign workers who make up over half of the emirate's population, has led many outsiders to scoff at today's exercises as a "country club election."
But among the 81,400 voters, and beyond their circle too, the vote has generated genuine enthusiasm, and no one is prepared to predict the outcome in the new political atmosphere that has prevailed here since Kuwait was freed from Iraqi occupation 19 months ago.
"I am shocked at the outspokenness and frankness of people" during the campaign, says political science professor Abdullah al-Shayeji. "We've been through a very traumatic experience, and we are very politicized."
Central to the debate that has fermented Kuwaiti society in recent months is the widely voiced demand that the royal family, headed by the emir, Sheikh Jabir al-Ahmad al-Jabir al-Sabah, should make his government more accountable, and open it to wider participation.
Some opposition candidates go so far as to blame the Sabahs for the August 1990 Iraqi invasion, arguing that if the emir had not dissolved parliament in 1986, Iraqi President Saddam Hussein could not have claimed to be liberating Kuwait from an oppressive dictatorship.
Even those who do not share that view, though, see the parliament as an essential check on the absolute powers that the emir has often preffered to wield unobstructed. The only open challenge to the ruling family's status - enshrined in the 1962 Constitution as a hereditary emirate - comes from a radical Muslim organization, the Islamic Popular Grouping, which argues that such a system runs counter to Islamic law.
The other six opposition groups accept the family's preeminence, and even the most progressive dream of nothing more revolutionary than transformng Kuwait into a constitutional monarchy along British lines.
"We all accept Article 4," of the Constitution, which makes the Sabahs hereditary rulers, says one opposition supporter, "but only on condition that they accept Article 6," which declares that "sovereignty resides in the people, the source of all powers."
This is a long battle in Kuwaiti politics, waged by pro-democracy advocates for nearly 30 years, and the royal family has fought back by closing parliament on three occasions.
But now, says veteran opposition leader Abdullah al-Nibarri, "there is more open criticism of the ruling family and government from wider circles. Now there are voices louder than ourselves raising issues that once only we radicals touched on."
Though only the 12 percent of Kuwaitis with voting rights will measure their desire for change today, pressure is building hard outside their numbers.
"Second class" citizens and women "point out that the Iraqis didn't discriminate between one kind of Kuwaiti and another" in their brutality and harrassment, says Ayed Manna, a journalist with the government-owned Sawt al-Kuwait newspaper. "If we were treated equally by the enemy, we expect to be treated equally by our government in opportunities for jobs and leadership positions."
At the same time, many candidates have been questioning values deeply ingrained in Kuwaiti society that have rarely been publicly challenged. "They measure a man according to his name, not his work, and that is very reactionary," argues Ismael al-Shatti, a candidate for the Islamic Constitutional Movement.
"This society does not value manual labor, normal labor, and we need to change that value," he adds. This - in a country where Indians, Egyptians, and Filipinos are imported to do every stroke of manual work - is revolutionary.
Key to the outcome of this election will be Kuwait's Bedouin tribesmen, voting along tribal lines, who are dominant in a majority of the 25 constituencies and who have traditionally been loyal to the royal family. This year, however, younger, well educated Bedouin candidates have emerged who may break the pattern.
"We hope there is going to be a surprise," says Mubarak al-Adwani, a Bedouin himself, standing for the progressive Kuwaiti Democratic Forum (KDF). "Some young Bedouin candidates are gathering support on an opposition program, and I don't think it's going to be the same again."
Although the urbanized, sophisticated KDF is not expected to win many Bedouin votes, Islamic candidates have worked hard amongst the tribesmen, and many analysts expect them to do well.
Even in the new mood, where political and economic issues weigh heavily in the voters' minds, old-style "service candidates," who offer their constituents the sort of favors the only their ties to the royal family can secure, are standing in most districts. Voters, who each have two ballots, could well decide to go both ways, suggests Dr. Shayeji. "Many will vote for one reformer, and then also for a candidate who is close to the royal family and who can help them through red tape."
Whether Kuwaiti voters usher in real change, or whether the Sabahs manage to limit the pace of reform, however, the genie seems out of the bottle.
The democratic process is already a very giant process, and it has deep roots," says Mr. Adwani. "I don't think it will be possible to stop it."