Kuwait held parliamentary elections Saturday, following the Oct. 16 dissolution of its National Assembly. Despite their boycott of the previous two elections, most opposition groups participated in this round, vowing to resolve the economic crisis facing the monarchy.
This election has come as Kuwait, OPEC’s third-largest oil producer, grapples with falling oil prices and a substantial budget deficit. In response to this economic strain, the government has decided to undertake austerity measures that stirred massive popular discontent. Only 40 percent of the departing parliament managed to keep their seats, while almost a third of the new parliament are young figures and political newcomers from tribal and liberal parties. Voters punished members of the former assembly for their compliance with the government’s new fiscal policies. With this election, Kuwaitis are expressing their resistance to changes to the long-standing social contract: economic benefits in exchange for political legitimacy. After a four-year absence, the opposition’s ability — or inability — to deliver on campaign promises will have serious implications for the stability of the country.
A diverse opposition with some common demands
Although political parties are outlawed in Kuwait, the parliament’s legislative prerogatives make it the strongest in the Gulf. A powerful tool for monitoring the government, the assembly can grill the emir’s appointed ministers, vote “no confidence” on individual cabinet members and overturn royal decrees. Most importantly, the assembly must approve the crown prince’s succession to power.
The main opposition groups — Islamists, liberals and tribal figures — have diverse ideologies and motives. The Muslim Brotherhood, banned in many countries in the region, has a strong presence in Kuwait. The country’s political wing of the brotherhood — the Islamic Constitutional Movement (ICM) — was established in 1991 after Kuwait’s liberation following the Iraqi invasion. Since then, they have competed effectively in elections and have made significant gains in the National Assembly. Before their boycott of elections, the Islamist-led opposition won a landslide majority in February 2012 elections, securing 68 percent of the seats, before the parliament was canceled in July 2012.
Most Salafist groups in Kuwait tend to align with the ICM, though with less organizational capacity, and more recently, figures from major tribes have also joined the Islamist-led opposition ranks. However, most of the tribal figures run as independent candidates.
In addition to the recurrent friction between the government and the opposition, the political scene in Kuwait is also marred by deep ideological schisms between the secular/liberal voices on one hand and the tribal and Islamist forces on the other. Whereas the liberals made sweeping gains in 1999, winning almost a third of the seats, their appeal and organizational capacities have diminished over the past decade compared to the rising influence of the Islamist-led opposition. It is worth noting that the liberal forces in Kuwait were the main supporters of women in the electoral arena.
The opposition is (mostly) back
While a wide coalition of Islamist and tribal candidates boycotted the December 2012 and 2013 elections over election rules that they argued favored pro-government candidates, those who boycotted came back to the polls. Mubarak al-Duwailah, a former member of parliament and a member of the ICM, defended the group’s choice to participate in this election by arguing that the boycott has harmed the people and is no longer an effective solution to Kuwait’s “crisis” including corruption and repression.
Weeks before the emir’s dissolution of parliament, another ICM member said in an interview, “The people are now angrier and more towards the opposition, not the government … and we have been preparing for a while to go back to the polls.” Four official ICM members won along with a few of their allies. Opposition Salafi Islamists also took five seats but no pro-government Salafists won. In the liberal camp, five opposition figures won, including Safa Al-Hashem, the only woman to secure a seat in the 50-person legislature.
While the big tribes suffered a huge blow, small tribes fared better. Previously, they would form an alliance with bigger tribes rather than field candidates on their own. The independent candidates from small tribes also centered their campaigns around opposing recent government measures. The 30-year-old Nasser Al-Dossari, who won to become the youngest member of the parliament in Kuwait’s history, had also focused on “stopping the government from using measures of political prosecution such as revoking of citizenships and increasing political freedom in Kuwait,” his campaign staff told the author. While the old opposition figures were expected to return, the impressive showing of the young, new politicians was a strong signal of the widespread disapproval against the current political and economic conditions.
However, some decided against participating in the polls. For instance, the liberal Kuwait Democratic Forum (KDF), once a strong presence in the legislature, did not field any candidates. “Many people I know will not vote because they feel the parliament will be ineffective,” said a member of the KDF to the author. Additionally, Ahmed Al-Sadoun, an ex-MP and a leader of the populist Popular Action Bloc, said that participating would not solve any problems even if the opposition regained power.
How economic shifts are disrupting the political status quo
In the oil-dependent kingdom that had previously spent record levels on subsidies and welfare, plunging gasoline prices have pressured the government to reform and diversify its economy. As the government launches an ambitious plan to end all subsidies by 2020, Kuwaitis fear the end of free health care, education and housing as well as interest-free loans. Reflecting the high stakes of this election, the turnout was reported to be at least 70 percent. Most of the candidates who won election focused their campaigns on opposing these cutbacks, fighting corruption and restoring deteriorating political freedoms.
As Kuwait stares down its first deficit in 16 years, candidates had heavily opposed the austerity measures, seeking to drum up public support. “My first goal is to reduce the price of petrol … to not let the citizens suffer from government deficit,” said former MP Ali al-Khamees in an interview this fall. “I want to hold whoever in the government responsible for making this change.” In a system that relied on its oil wealth to promise cradle-to-grave welfare in exchange for political support, unpopular economic reforms will presumably threaten the monarchy’s stability.
In addition to facing the government’s reform plans, the new parliament has to address the public outcry against corruption and lack of transparency. “Austerity in Kuwait is a political choice rather than a necessity. The government seems to turn a blind eye on big corporations, who obviously infiltrate its decision-making” process, said Ghadeer Aseri, a former candidate in the first district. “In such a dominantly single-income economy from exporting oil, cutting government spending came now after years and years of the government and parliament failures to diversify and grow the economy. Current austerity measures hit the middle class families the hardest.”
The economic challenges also come at a time of heightened regional crises from the Islamic State to wars in Iraq, Syria and Yemen. Add to that the questions regarding the 87-year-old emir’s deteriorating health. There is a crucial need for a stable, unified parliament to facilitate the transition process to the crown prince, Sheikh Nawaf al-Ahmad.
The opposition has returned to the parliament. This win, however, raises concerns of political crises similar to those during 2006-2012. The compliance of the previous pro-government parliament will likely give way to fierce disputes between the legislators and the government. The ruling family will continue to take advantage of the divided opposition, which is yet to present clear leadership. The prospects for agreement among opposition members will be key for the country’s future.
Yuree Noh is a PhD candidate in political science at the University of California, Los Angeles. Marwa Shalaby is a fellow for the Middle East and the director of the Women’s Rights in the Middle East Program at Rice University’s Baker Institute for Public Policy.