KUWAIT CITY — The drama of Kuwait's parliamentary elections has nothing to do with the ballot count. It's what may come afterward that has the country on edge as a broad coalition of conservative Islamists, liberal reformers and others vow to boycott Saturday's vote.
The election snub pushes the strategic Western ally closer toward the kind of standoffs that have unraveled other countries, including nearby Bahrain, during the Arab Spring: opposition groups possibly taking to the streets and the ruling establishment facing critical decisions about how hard to lash back.
The disputes flow from a complicated chain of events over the past six months, including the dissolution of the opposition-led parliament and its replacement by a pro-government legislature, followed by a decree from the emir to amend voting rules that appeared to favor his critics.
The opposition coalition then decided it would not participate in the election and deemed the new parliament – certain to be dominated by pro-government lawmakers – as illegitimate. The tensions also raise worrisome questions for allies such as the U.S., which seeks to keep thousands of American soldiers in Kuwait as part of the Pentagon's military counterweight to Iran.
"The core demands of the opposition are more participation and more partnership in government," said Shafeeq Ghabra, a political affairs professor at Kuwait University.
Anti-government lawmakers – mostly Islamists and their allies – have made almost a cottage industry of lodging corruption accusations and other charges at officials and even members of the ruling family. In the past year, the foreign minister and central bank governor resigned under pressure from the opposition bloc in the 50-seat parliament.
Such dissent would be unthinkable in much of the tightly ruled Gulf, including Saudi Arabia or the United Arab Emirates. The decision to boycott the Kuwaiti elections now closes off parliament as a forum for a wide spectrum of opposition voices and could stir more street protests, which touched off serious clashes this month.
"The only thing certain is that we are not going to back down," said Mohammed Qassem, a leader of the election boycott movement.
That leaves the oil-rich country deeply divided. The showdown, stripped to its essentials, is over whether the final word on the country's political affairs rests with the people or the ruling dynasty.
There is still no clear sense on Kuwait's direction and whether the political stalemate could flare into unrest. All sides are "working blind" at the moment, said Mary Ann Tetreault, a Gulf affairs expert at Trinity University in San Antonio, Texas, in an interview with Al Jazeera.
On Friday, more than 15,000 protesters rallied in the first government-authorized demonstration in Kuwait City since a ban on political gatherings earlier this month. Banners proclaimed: "We are boycotting."
There was no violence and at the end of the rally, the crowd dispersed peacefully. But the protest was closely watched for any signs of breakaway groups trying to confront security forces. The apparent strong turnout by youth groups and liberal factions also was important as an indication the unusual boycott coalition is holding together.
Their alliance of convenience with Islamists and conservative tribal leaders is among the most unexpected developments of the political meltdown. For the moment, they are united by the claims that the emir, Sheik Sabah Al Ahmed Al Sabah, overstepped his authority by changing the Kuwait's unusual multi-vote system to the standard one-vote-one-person.
Previously, Kuwaitis could cast ballots for four candidates. Critics of the change say it gives authorities a greater hand possibly to bribe voters or control candidates.
The presence of Western-oriented Kuwaitis in the protest group poses added challenges to the ruling system, which had generally counted on liberal support in the past. The emir had been lauded for standing firm against demands for stricter Muslim codes by hardliners, including calls to impose the death sentence on anyone convicted of insulting Islam.
Whether the broad-based opposition holds together remains one of the critical wild cards immediately after Saturday's election.
"The government and the opposition seem to be in a mood to escalate this further and neither side appears prepared to back down," said Kristian Coates-Ulrichsen, a research fellow who follows Gulf affairs at the London School of Economics. "Kuwait may be entering the most dangerous and volatile period in its history."
It got to this point through political brinksmanship and a series of gambits – with each one appearing to dig the country deeper into crisis.
In February, Islamists and their tribal allies won parliament elections and immediately pushed for greater clout in policymaking affairs, including more seats in the Cabinet.
After a few tense months, the Constitutional Court disbanded the parliament amid claims of flaws in the electoral district map, and reinstated the former government-friendly chamber from elections in 2009. That group of lawmakers, however, never managed to convene a session.
In September, the country's highest civilian court rejected the government's assertions about problems in the electoral map, forcing the emir to call new elections.
Kuwait also has been hit by a wave of labor unrest and strikes earlier this year, including walkouts that grounded the state carrier, Kuwait Airways, and temporarily closed customs posts and left several hundred trucks stranded at the border.
Calls for better working conditions have grown louder in the wake of the Arab Spring uprisings. Kuwaitis are used to well-paid government jobs and cradle-to-grave benefits that increasingly have become a burden on state finances despite the huge oil wealth.