If Kuwait’s government was hoping that the elections on 17 May would result in a more supportive National Assembly (parliament), it would have been quickly disappointed by an election that has reinforced the opposition’s strong position.
When the results were published 12 hours after the polls closed, it was clear that Islamist and conservative tribal groups, which had been so antagonistic towards the government in the previous parliament, were the clear victors. Although Kuwait bans political parties, at least 25 out of the 50 elected MPs are linked to Islamist movements, including at least nine for the hardline Islamic Salafi Alliance.
On the opposite end of the spectrum, liberals won just seven seats, down marginally on the previous parliament, while the secular, nationalist Popular Action Bloc lost a seat, leaving it with just three MPs.
Just as worrying for them, many of their candidates who were elected only just made it through. In the Kuwaiti electoral system, the top 10 candidates in each of the five constituencies are elected to parliament, but liberal and nationalist candidates were often elected in ninth or tenth place.
The electorate has proved willing to get rid of less worthy MPs, with 22 of the elected candidates new to parliament. But despite this, the same groups have continued to win support. “There is not much difference in the structure of parliament,” says former MP and leading liberal Abdullah al-Nebari. “Even if there are new names, the ideology is the same.”
The election was the first to be held under the Constituencies Law, which was enacted last year to reduce vote buying. The government had hoped that larger electoral districts – reduced to five from 25 – would dilute the power of Kuwait’s tribal groups and the Islamists, and make it easier for women to get elected.
However, it seems to have had the opposite effect. In the fourth electoral district, for example, candidates from the Al-Mutairi and Al-Rasheedi tribes won 7 of the 10 seats. “Islamists and tribal elements have a stronger mandate,” says Mustafa Alani, senior adviser and director of security at the Dubai-based Gulf Research Centre. “The government tried to get rid of them, but it did not work.”
At the same time, none of the 27 female candidates was elected, despite women making up 55 per cent of the electoral roll. Almost all the successful candidates had aligned themselves with political blocs. Only wealthy independent candidates, such as parliamentary speaker Jassem al-Kharafi, were able to spend their way to success.
Just one of the 27 female candidates was aligned with a political group and almost got elected. Aseel al-Awadhi, a candidate for the liberal National Democratic Alliance, came in 11th place in the third district, just 800 votes shy of being elected.
The poor performance of female candidates has led to calls for further reforms. “The government has done nothing about this issue over the past two years,” says Nabila al-Anjari, a former female parliamentary candidate and undersecretary at the Communications Ministry. “I think it is time for quotas [for female MPs].”
The results do not bode well for the government, which has blamed parliament for consistently blocking reforming legislation. In recent years, the state has been unable to make much economic progress or modernise its infrastructure, thanks to a cumbersome bureaucracy, a lack of strong leadership and an emboldened legislature.
Much of the government’s ability to perform in the future will depend on the composition of the new cabinet. The political groups in parliament will be expecting some representation in the government, including key ministerial portfolios. The Islamists, who performed the most strongly, are already pushing for acting Oil & Gas Minister Mohammed al-Olaim to be given the post on a more permanent basis.
If the government chooses to ignore the pressure and put in place independent technocrats or members of the Al-Sabah ruling family, it can expect parliament to continue its programme of harassing underperforming ministers and blocking proposed legislation.
However, the chances are that it cannot afford to take this path, and the cabinet is likely to reflect parliament’s make-up, apart from the untouchable portfolios of defence, interior, foreign affairs and the office of prime minister.
“There is a lot at stake,” says Abdullah al-Shayi, professor of politics at Kuwait University. “Reform, better services, putting to use the huge surplus, helping the states become better and more prosperous. The bread-and-butter issues are key.”
Kuwait is already lagging behind other Gulf states. Despite its discomfort with the results, the government will have to find ways to co-operate with the new parliament if it is to catch up.