KUWAIT CITY — On the illuminated boulevard that has been nicknamed "Democracy Street" in this oil emirate, Mohammed Rashed Hafaity is packing in the crowds at tent meetings every Tuesday and Saturday night.
More than 1,000 men in white robes wait eagerly in the open air for more than an hour to hear this veterinarian turned politician and satirist--part Pat Paulsen, part Ross Perot. They hoot and guffaw as he lampoons puffed-up government officials, corrupt bureaucrats and the voters themselves in the final weeks before Kuwait's parliamentary elections, its second since it was liberated from Iraqi occupation in 1991.
"Please, give me your vote," he says. "I'm sorry, but I don't have enough money to buy it."
Hafaity is one of 248 candidates competing for 50 parliament seats next Monday in a contest as vibrant and refreshing as it is rare for the region.
Kuwait has emerged as the Persian Gulf's only democracy, and one of the very few states in the Arab world that can make that claim. But like the other Arab democracies in the region--Egypt, Lebanon and Jordan--it is still democracy with an asterisk.
In the case of Kuwait, women cannot vote. Neither can a significant proportion of men because of restrictive citizenship laws and a ban on voting by members of the army, police and parts of the civil service. Although criticizing the government and individuals in the royal family is OK--practically de rigueur, in fact--attacks directed at the emir, Sheik Jabbar al Ahmed al Sabah, are out of bounds.
Within those strictures, election fever has taken hold in this country of 1.7 million. Dozens of tent meetings for different hopefuls take place every night. Voters wander from one tent to another, getting face time with the candidates and grazing as they go.
Wealthy candidates host lavish free banquets: Tables groan with roasted goats, salads and pastries, and fruit wagons overflow with apples, pears, dates and figs. Other hopefuls offer no more than a cup of sweet tea or icy water, served up with free-ranging opinions.
At these meetings, criticism that might earn a resident of a neighboring state a visit from the police or a stay in jail hardly raises an eyebrow. Ministers are accused of embezzling, taking round-the-world junkets and neglecting official duties unless there are bribes involved.
In this society, "not speaking your mind would be an unnatural act," one Western diplomat said. Debate has centered on economic and domestic issues. The recent rise in tensions with Iraq, which caused Washington to rush in additional U.S. troops and fighter planes, has rated barely a mention.
Many Kuwaitis express the view that their country is the testing ground for the Arab world.
"This small country could be a laboratory on how an Arabic, Islamic society could work in a framework of democracy," said Saif Abdullah, a professor of political science at Kuwait University.
Analysts say much of the current enthusiasm can be traced to Kuwait's recent history--its invasion by Iraq in 1990 and seven-month occupation until it was liberated by allied forces.
Before the war, Kuwait had become a country run by and for the pampered, its citizens made rich by oil and coddled by hundreds of thousands of imported servants. But the trauma of the occupation, during which the country's property was looted and resistance was answered with summary executions, put a certain seriousness into Kuwaiti life.
Kuwaitis still cruise the country's six-lane highways in Caprices, Grand Cherokees and Suburbans, eat at McDonald's and Fuddruckers and enjoy all the luxuries that a per capita national income roughly comparable to that of the United States can provide. But now they pay more attention to their civic duties.
Every eligible Kuwaiti voter traveling abroad will board a plane to return home in time to cast a ballot next month, predicted journalist Hussein Abdul Rahman.
"Kuwait is free," several patriotic billboards proclaim, in case anyone is wont to forget.
The closest Arab neighbors--Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Bahrain, Oman and the United Arab Emirates--are ruled by family dynasties. A few have appointed advisory councils, but none has an elected parliament.
Recently, visitors from those countries have been coming to scope out Kuwait, said a diplomat specializing in political affairs. "They enjoy the spectacle, so different from their own systems," she said.
In a country where a married woman still cannot get a passport without her husband's permission, a dynamic women's suffrage movement is catching fire. Thousands of women and some men wear blue ribbons--they say the color represents harmony--to symbolize their message that nothing in the Koran forbids women from taking part in their own government.
When Lubna Abbas, a television journalist, and Khaloud Feeli, with the Kuwait News Agency, urged women to join a work stoppage Sunday to demonstrate their commitment to attaining voting rights, they were astounded by the phone calls they received.
"We were . . ," Feeli said.