Bathed in national self-congratulation over the very act of voting, Kuwait's first-class citizens awoke today to discover they had elected a moderate National Assembly rid of threatening outside influences both old and new.
This was the upshot of yesterday's elections for the citizens of this wealthy oil nation, who until recently feared the government would invoke the Persian Gulf war and general Arab world disarray to postpone the vote. But instead, the results themselves seemed to remove these elements as reasons for fear in Kuwait; voters rejected Iran's Islamic revolution and turned away from the faded pan-Arab leftists heritage of the late president Gamal Abdel Nasser of Egypt.
So interested in the idea of democratic government are Kuwaitis that the very holding of elections -- the first since the ruling family dissolved the National Assembly in 1976 on the ground that its members were seeking to subvert the state -- was welcomed as more important than the results themselves.
More than 440 candidates without formal party affiliations competed for the votes of 43,000 male, first-class Kuwait citizens, roughly 3 percent of Kuwait's 1.4 million inhabitants. Madison Avenue hoopla mixed with desert Bedouin traditions marked the month-long campaign, which provided a serious debating forum and clearing house for competing ideas on the eve of Kuwait's 25th anniversary as an independent state.
The differences between Islamic sects, city dwellers and Bedouin or between the rich and the welfare state's poorer charges all took second place to a common and festive show of pride. Kuwaitis from all walks of life were delighted that their country was returning to its democratic traditions.
Many expressed surprise that the emir, or ruling prince -- Sheik Jaber Ahmad Jaber Sabah -- had kept his word, albeit with a six-month delay, to hold the elections after all.
In terms of influence, if not absolute numbers, the big winners were the government and the Moslem fundamentalists of the dominant Sunni sect, who here as elsewhere rode the crest of resurgent Islam. They won four of the 50 seats by eliminating the previously vocal Arab nationalist lay left and playing on anti-Iranian backlash to reduce the Shiite Moslem representation from 10 to four seats.
Also helping curb a possible pro-Iranian surge among the local Shiites -- who form the majority sect in Iran and 25 percent of Kuwait's population -- were redrawn voting districts that effectively ensured their loss of seats.
Hailed only yesterday as a test of democracy and a challenge to the volatile Middle East's authoritarian regimes, the elections in fact pleased the hereditary ruling sheiks by removing their harshest critics. Also likely to be pleaded were Kuwait's neighbors fearful of an activist parliament's potential spillover effect on them.
Younger, better educated merchants and tecnocrats -- often graduates of American universities -- were also elected in significant numbers to a National Assembly nevertheless numerically dominated by more than 20 generally progovernment representatives of the less sophisticated and recently settled Bedouin tribes.
But the focus was less on who won than on the pride Kuwaitis felt in voting at all. Still confident the day before his crushing defeat that his Arab nationalist leftists would win as many as 10 seats, Ahamd Khatib had said, "We Kuwaitis are an infectious disease."
That cockiness was not limited to Khatib, who was instrumental in bringing about the nationalization of Kuwait's oil in the 1970s. It was shared by telephone-in-the-Rolls-Royce wheelers and recently citified Bedouins.
Even before the moderates' triumph Kuwaitis expected the new National Assembly to be calmer than its predecessor, which foundered on the shoals of the Lebanese civil war's local repercussions, general criticism of the government and the free-swinging press that is still the Arab world's most outspoken. The overriding issue then was nationalizing Kuwait's oil and gas -- the reserves are among the largest in the world -- and the leftist opposition got its way eventually.
This time, however, it could find no such telling argument. Today a further oil production cut from the present 1.5 million to 1 million barrels a day, down from the 1972 high of 3.3 million, has become something akin to consensus thinking although tempered by the outside world's needs and the knowledge of Kuwait's defense sulnerability.
Aside from the religious issue and rejection of the traditional leftist opposition, other campaign debates concerned:
Preventing alleged government plans to emasculate parliament's constitutional powers.
Enfranchising Kuwaiti women and the 25,000 second-class Kuwaiti citizens who have been naturalized.
Eventual naturalization of some of the 800,000 foreign workers who help keep this city-state functioning.
Revision of investment policies involving about $50 billion in reserves invested in the West.
Local issues ranging from pollution to welfare services.
Much of the campaign was conducted in giant circus-like tents erected by candidates and fitted out with cushions, lights and varying degrees of luxury to attract the all-male voters. The tents marked a departure for city dwellers, traditionally used to visiting the diwaniyeh, or salon, of a candidate's house to talk politics.
Many candidates, even among the less advanced Bedouins, were between 35 and 45 years old and university graduates who had studied abroad, often in the United States. But for all the telephones, occasional neon signs and printed election literature, the campaign was a typically Kuwaiti affair.
No electioneering was allowed on the state-owned radio or television. Newspapers made small fortunes thanks to increased circulation and political advertisements selling for $3,700 a half page. Cassettes with candidates' views for the illiterate were also popular, and personal contacts were considered a must by candidates' friends who worked as staffers in their spare time.
One rich candidate had a major hotel cater a nightly buffet for 300 guests during the entire month while another was jokingly accused of offering voters a "swimming pool and a trip to Majorca" for their support. American-trained Hashem Bebehani, a political science professor at Kuwait University, said his campaign -- including tent, electric generator, tea, coffee and soft drinks -- cost less than $37,000.
"My father was reluctant to have me run at the beginning," he said, "but now he's angry I didn't spend more."
Other candidates were aid to have spent as much as $1.9 million with some of the cash earnmarked for persuading rival candidates to withdraw or buying up voter registration cards until the polls closed. The campaign also provided a chance for old friends to meet again after many years and recall, even for men still in their thirties, what their lives had been like before oil money changed Kuwait so drastically.
"For us," said a fat-cat Kuwaiti at one of the posher tents, "this is going back to our beginnings, back to our roots. We realize the intimacy we have lost."