The Scramble for Kuwait’s Democracy

By Mai Alfarhan
Contributing Writer
December 24th, 2016

Kuwait concluded its snap elections last month after the parliament was urgently dissolved in October. The parliament’s dissolution, enacted by a decree from the emir, came as a result of the mounting economic and security challenges that Kuwait has been struggling to cope with amid clashes over petroleum subsidy cuts. In Kuwait’s parliamentary history, only six parliaments out of seventeen have concluded their cycle without intervention from the government to dissolve them.

The turnout for the election was significantly higher than in the past, reaching 70% at selected polling stations, compared to only 52% for the dissolved 2013 parliament. This high turnout was no surprise due to opposition groups’ participation following a nearly four-year boycott. Kuwaiti opposition groups, including liberal, Islamist, and tribal factions, had boycotted the 2013 parliamentary elections to protest the “one man one vote law,” which amended the number of votes a citizen could cast from four to a single vote per person.

Opposition groups made a strong comeback by winning twenty seats out of fifty during this election cycle. This was in part triggered by the absence of the prominent tribal-opposition leader, Musallam Al-Barrak. Al-Barrak is currently in prison on charges related to verbally insulting the emir in one of his public speeches. He is considered a national revolutionary figure with an appeal that extends beyond his tribe to both liberal and Islamist Kuwaitis. His absence created a vacuum that was filled by other tribal-opposition chairs, equal numbers of Muslim Brotherhood and Salafist chairs, and new, young opposition faces that made it to the parliament for the first time. Kuwaitis showed their frustration over the dissolved parliament by not re-electing many of its former members, giving the opposition more leverage in parliament.

Tribal groups in Kuwait have long organized themselves through holding primaries. Despite the illegality of primaries under Kuwaiti law, in an election year most major tribes compile lists of favored candidates who they hope will score multiple seats in parliament. Simultaneously, they coordinate with other major tribes to set the number of candidates each tribe can run in the five electoral districts. This method worked for years until the results of this election were revealed. Primaries proved to be ineffective, as many candidates from the important Al-Ajmi, Al-Azmi, and Al-Mutairi tribes, who won primaries, did not make it to parliament. Surprisingly, other tribal candidates who did not participate in primaries earned seats in parliament. Due to this disorganization, tribal groups are currently underrepresented in parliament in proportion to their actual size.

This election also witnessed a reduction in the number of Shia parliament members from eight to six. The number of Shia seats in parliament has been in continual decline as opposition members end their boycott cycles gradually. The population dynamics of Kuwaiti society explain this trend. The Shia population in Kuwait is modest, accounting for 35% of the overall population, which gives Sunnis more say in the democratic process. Hence, the increasing participation by all political sectors of Kuwaiti Sunnis pushed back Shia candidates.

There has also been a steep decline in the number of females who are finding their way to parliament, after a well-fought battle for women to gain their political right to vote and run for office in 2005. Only one woman was elected this cycle, representing the smallest number of women in parliament since women gained this right. Initially, fourteen women ran for parliament with different platforms. However, the only woman who made it to the parliament was former MP Safaa Al-Hashim. The Kuwaiti Court of Appeals had disqualified al-Hashim’s candidacy due to pending legal charges on her record. Later, the court reinstated her candidacy only a few days before Kuwaitis headed to the polls. Al-Hashim continued running her campaign despite her disqualification, proving her endurance. If there was a silver lining to the lack of female presence in this parliament, it was that for the first time in the history of Kuwait, twenty-two female prosecutors participated in overseeing the electoral process as a part of the male-dominated judicial authorities.

The lesson learned from this election is that the government can no longer steer the wheel on its own as it did for the past two parliaments. New challenges will emerge as the newly elected opposition MPs form a bloc in parliament to counterbalance the existing government agenda. Although they are in the minority, opposition MPs will make attempts to overtly defend civil liberties and constitutional rights. The Kuwaiti government and ruling family are embarking on a new era in which the opposition can, and will, raise questions regarding future austerity measures, limitations on the freedom of speech, and bureaucratic corruption. However, these questions are unlikely to inspire domestic reform as the total number of pro-government and non-opposition tribal seats outnumber the opposition. Instead, they will stir more controversies in parliament and will likely result in numerous clashes between government loyalists and members of the opposition.

The Kuwaiti government must tolerate opposition voices, however. The speaker of the house should cooperate with the opposition MPs by addressing their demands and proposals equally. In the case of opposition MPs filing proposals to grill ministers, the government should not respond by dissolving the parliament as it did repeatedly for the majority of the past legislatures. Rather, it ought to allow the parliament to conclude the cycle it was elected to carry out. Doing so would both further the democratic process in Kuwait and create stability by giving opposition actors a stake in governance.

Mai Y. Alfarhan is a graduate student at the Elliott School of International Affairs at the George Washington University. She has previously conducted research on security and Gulf states at the United Nations Development Programme in Kuwait.

Picture licensed under CC-BY-2.5.

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