Kuwait elections fail to build consensus

19 March 2012

Opposition candidates won the majority of seats in the recent elections in Kuwait, adding to the rift between the cabinet and parliament

Key fact

The new Kuwaiti government was sworn in on 14 February 2012

Source: MEED

Kuwait’s parliamentary elections on 2 February reflected the drama that unfolded in the Gulf state of 3.5 million people at the end of 2011. The results also delivered a victory to the opposition candidates, putting pay to hopes of a new political consensus in the country.

Tensions have been growing in the wake of the political unrest that had spread across the Middle East. Kuwait’s youths have taken to the streets in numerous protests, reaching a peak in mid-November with the storming of the country’s parliament (National Assembly) to demand the resignation of the prime minister, Sheikh Nasser Mohammad al-Ahmad al-Sabah.

The opposition bloc is trying to be more cohesive … than in the past, but they …overplayed their hand

Kristian Coates Ulrichsen, London School of Economics

The demonstrators broke open the gates of the parliament building and entered the main chamber, before singing the national anthem then leaving. It was not quite Tahrir Square, but was an alarming instance of street politics and perhaps a watershed moment for Kuwait, showing the changing character of local politics.

Violent polarisation in Kuwait

The election campaign was also marked by angry rhetoric and even moments of violence, such as the attack on the television station that called for calm after a mob burnt down a tribal leader’s tent.

“Kuwaiti politics is usually robust, but never violent. What has shocked people was the ease with which political polarisation turned to violence,” says Kristian Coates Ulrichsen, a Kuwait research fellow at the London School of Economics.

The election was Kuwait’s fourth in less than six years after frequent dissolutions of parliament by Emir Sheikh Sabah al-Ahmad al-Jaber al-Sabah. Participating candidates numbered 344 across five constituencies, each of which are allocated 10 seats. The election campaigns were dominated by social welfare and corruption, and saw more than half the former members of parliament being replaced.

The result was the strengthening of the opposition bloc in parliament. A loose coalition of Islamist and tribal MPs won 34 seats, the majority in Kuwait’s 50-seat National Assembly. This will piled further pressure on the Gulf state’s ruling family, which has faced months of unprecedented political unrest.

Pro-government MPs have been left in the minority with only nine seats going to independents and liberals, along with seven to Shia members, who have traditionally supported the government to protect their interests in a Sunni-dominated country. Kuwait’s female MPs have also lost ground. While there were four women in the previous parliament, none of the 24 female candidates won a seat this term.

Coates Ulrichsen says the success of the Islamist and tribal MPs has set the scene for a struggle over the soul of Kuwait between the aristocratic merchant families and the more conservative tribal and Islamist groups.

“There is a deep sense of dismay among older Kuwaitis at the direction in which Kuwait politics is going,” says Coates Ulrichsen.

There is already evidence of the kind of debates that will feature prominently in the new parliament. The Popular Bloc has announced it would support a move to amend Article 2 of the Kuwaiti Constitution, so that Islam is the sole source of legislation, rather than the current wording, which has Islam as “a source”.

Such an amendment would require the approval of at least two-thirds of the National Assembly before being transferred to the emir for final approval, making it unlikely to pass. But it does hint that the opposition will target and try to Islamise social issues.

Ahmed al-Sadoun, a veteran opposition MP was elected parliamentary speaker, ahead of state candidate Mohammed al-Sager, signalling the opposition’s increased power and the potential for friction. Al-Sadoun has caused a stir in Kuwait politics before, most notably accusing the government of overestimating its crude oil reserves – a touchy subject for a major oil exporter. He was also active in anti-government protests at the end of 2011. His election was greeted by a scuffle with supporters of Al-Sager, yet another indication of the tinder box the Kuwait political scene has become.

Kuwait cabinet posts

Kuwait’s emir swore in the new government on 14 February, the ninth to be appointed since he assumed power in January 2006. The government is led by Prime Minister Sheikh Jaber al-Mubarak al-Sabah, who was appointed in December 2011.

The cabinet does not have to be drawn from parliament, but Kuwait’s constitution requires at least one position must be filled by an MP. The ruling Al-Sabah family maintains four key positions: the offices of the ministries of defence, information, interior and foreign affairs. The opposition had demanded nine cabinet posts in the new government. Sheikh Jaber al-Sabah was willing to only hand them three. The offer was rejected.

“The opposition bloc is trying to be more cohesive and united than they were in the past, but they massively overplayed their hand, asking for nine seats out of 15, which would have been unprecedented,” says Coates Ulrichsen. “It was bound to be rejected. It wasn’t that they wanted to draw those nine from the elected representatives of parliament either; they wanted to appoint nine of their own members.”

The single post was eventually filled by Shuaib al-Muwaizri, generally not considered to be from the mainstream opposition, who accepted the position of minister of state for housing and parliamentary affairs. 

With only one member in government, parliament will continue to play a limited role as the opposition, but it has been emboldened by the results of the February election. Anger at government corruption has been the main reason behind the opposition’s success. Many of its members are determined to bring the state down, and the tribal and Islamist opposition MPs now hold the majority required for a no-confidence vote.

Corruption scandals

Barely three weeks after the formation of a new government and a month after elections, the first grilling motions were tabled, targeting the prime minister and finance minister.

Other opposition members have shown more restraint, arguing that to target the prime minister at this early stage would leave blame with the opposition for not even attempting to find a workable relationship with the government.

On 7 March, Shia MP Saleh Ashour filed the first request, a 31-page document alleging five violations from the prime minister, including his failure to take action on two major corruption scandals, and to resolve the ongoing issue of the stateless Bedoon people. Most MPs backed the move, but would not support a request for non-cooperation with the government.

Obaid al-Wasmi, an outspoken MP from the Al-Mutairi tribe has set the tone for some members of the opposition. According to sources in Kuwait, Al-Wasmi’s first speech in the new National Assembly was a blunt threat to the government, with reports saying he warned those alleged to have been involved in corruption scandals to leave the country.

There are signs the ruling family is also far from united. Before the cabinet was announced, there were several reports leaked in the local press indicating that the interior ministry and first deputy prime minister posts would be passed on to someone outside the Al-Sabah clan, a historic move, unique in Kuwait and the Gulf.

“The sovereign ministries have always been outside parliament, but in the end, the reports were quickly replaced by other reports that the ruling family was split and then they were given to a senior member of the ruling family anyway,” says Coates Ulrichsen.

Nonetheless, the leaks do indicate significant levels of disagreement within the ruling family on how to share power. As does the resignation of Sheikh Salem Abdulaziz al-Sabah, the former Central Bank of Kuwait governor, who left his post in mid-February in protest at the state’s expansionary fiscal policy.

The largest individual winner in the election was opposition MP Mussalam al-Barrak, who led the November storming of parliament. Al-Barrak received about 30,000 votes, the highest ever in Kuwait’s electoral history, reflecting the strength of discomfort in the country.

One possible avenue for power sharing between parliament and the government is the Supreme Petroleum Council (SPC), the highest hydrocarbon policymaking body in the country, which has been dominated by members of the ruling family since its creation in 1974.

Parliament is trying to involve itself in the formation of the new council, chosen every four years. Chaired by the prime minister, it traditionally comprises the ministers of oil, finance, foreign affairs, trade, development, electricity and banking, as well as former state energy company executives, private-sector experts and the central bank governor.

State refiner Kuwait National Petroleum Company (KNPC) has waited years for SPC’s approval to retender $15bn-worth of engineering, procurement and construction contracts for a new 615,000 barrel-a-day (b/d) refinery at the port of Al-Zour in the north of Kuwait. The project was originally cancelled in 2009.

Hani Abdulaziz Hussain, the newly appointed oil minister could be the man to get this, and other projects critical to Kuwait’s oil sector, going again. Hussain has worked across the entire spectrum of Kuwait’s oil sector, from KNPC to state-upstream operator Kuwait Oil Company. He will have to market several multibillion-dollar schemes to parliament and prove they can be achieved with full transparency.

Parliamentary blockages to Kuwait projects

“Hani Hussain is a technocratic appointment. The government needs him to guide them through the modernisation process – all the projects involved in increasing oil production to 4 million b/d by 2020 – and to get them through the parliamentary blockages that have stalled the fourth refinery and clean fuels project,” says one industry source in Kuwait.

“He could be successful if he is not seen as being politicised. Joint ventures have been sunk in the past because parliament didn’t think the government was capable of getting a good deal on its behalf.”

With the government and parliament split on how to share power and the cycle of grillings, dissolutions and elections looking likely to continue, it is difficult to see a way out for Kuwait. “The new government doesn’t have any greater chance of success than … previous ones,” says Coates Ulrichsen. “They will be given a period of a few months at least because people are fed up of the continual state of paralysis.”

The opposition has tapped into the real frustration and even anger, about the state of the economy, corruption, lack of progress with development projects and the perception that Kuwait has fallen behind regional rivals, such as the UAE and Qatar. But the current shape of Kuwait’s political system limits the influence it can wield to only challenging policy, rather than shaping it.

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