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Elections in Kuwait: Will it lead to Political Instability?

Dr Md. Muddassir Quamar is Associate Fellow at Manohar Parrikar Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, New Delhi. Click here for detailed profile.
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  • December 06, 2016

    On November 26, parliamentary elections were held in Kuwait and the results have thrown up an interesting scenario with opposition candidates winning nearly half the seats. Notably, many of the sitting members have lost and as many as 30 of the elected members are new and young including a woman. According to the election authority, the turnout was over 65 per cent and a total of 290 candidates including 14 women were in the fray. Kuwait’s unicameral legislature known as Majlis al-Umma or national assembly is one of the most vibrant among the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) countries, with the members having right to question the cabinet. The total strength of the Assembly is 65 with 15 appointed ministers who are ex-officio members and 50 directly elected—10 each from five electoral districts.

    The previous house was dissolved by the Emir on October 16, citing deteriorating security situation having necessitated a fresh mandate. Analysts, however, believe that the Emir decided to dissolve the house because of persistent questions raised by the members of parliament (MPs) against austerity measures introduced by the cabinet. The Kuwaiti Constitution gives power to the Emir as well as the constitutional court to dissolve the national assembly. Though the term of the house is of four years, there have been seven elections in the last 10 years and three between 2011 and 2013, indicating political challenges facing the tiny oil-rich Emirate. During 2011-13, Kuwait witnessed sporadic protests and heightened political activism amidst regional upheavals, forcing the ruling al-Sabah family to dissolve the national assembly and the opposition groups to boycott the fresh elections.

    The campaigns for this election were intense and austerity measures and rising prices were main issues. Opposition groups including Islamists and liberals, who had boycotted the previous election held in July 2013 over the new electoral laws that they alleged favoured the pro-government candidates, participated this time and campaigned vigorously. Downward economic turn due to low oil prices, forcing cut in social security and subsidies, and high youth unemployment, were issues that the opposition groups raised. Analysts have argued that some of the measures taken by the government were not appreciated by the electorate, and the opposition by raising these issues during campaign could connect with the people, leading to their good performance.

    Political parties are not allowed in Kuwait but historically likeminded individuals have formed groups and coordinated election campaigns. Islamists, Salafists, liberals, Shias, pro-government individuals backed by dominant tribes such as Ajman, Mutair and Awazem have been the dominant groups. Since the last election was boycotted by the Islamists and liberals, dominant tribe-backed individuals, pro-government Salafists and Shia groups dominated the house. In this election, however, opposition Islamists with links to Muslim Brotherhood and Salafists, liberals and individuals backed by smaller tribes such as Enezi and Jahra have done well. This can create rifts and political instability witnessed earlier might return. Issues such as austerity measures, rising prices, and the issue of citizenship might lead to confrontation between the government and opposition.

    There is, however, a larger question that this election has thrown up, that is, whether Kuwait will proceed on the path of political reforms and democratisation. Kuwait has taken significant steps towards reforms since the 1990s, precisely after liberation from Iraq. Kuwaiti MPs are directly elected and can question and discuss policy decisions and the cabinet. The constitutional court has the right to dissolve the parliament and alter decisions taken by the Emir but political reforms and an empowered parliament has largely resulted in political instability. One of the main long-term demands of the opposition is to have an elected government, which has been so far rejected by the monarchy. Analysts believe that the idea of an elected government will not materialise in the current regional climate, because strong political reforms can lead to riddles in the neighbourhood.

    There are other political issues especially the status of Bidoon (stateless tribal Bedouins), corruption scandals and tough security measures that have marred previous governments. Security has emerged as a major issue in the past two years as Kuwait has witnessed a number of terrorist attacks. A suicide attack on a Shia mosque killed 27 worshippers on June 26, 2015. There was also an attempt to target the US soldiers in October 2016; an incident that was initially seen as an accident but was later confirmed as a terrorist attack. Crackdown by the security agencies had led to the discovery of many sleeper cells of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), prompting the government to take some extraordinary measures, which were deemed by the opposition as stifling of free speech and dissent. A government proposal to collect DNA samples of all citizens for identification purposes was highly unpopular and has been postponed for now.

    In recent years, economic crisis and corruption scandals have often impacted the functioning of the government. On November 15, 2011, during the height of Arab Spring, many MPs along with their supporters had “stormed” the parliament protesting against a scandal involving Prime Minister Nasser al-Sabah who was later removed. After the February 2012 election, an opposition “anti-corruption” bloc had emerged in the national assembly. The judiciary later dissolved the house that led to government introducing new electoral laws, diminishing the possibility of opposition groups forming a bloc in the parliament. Now with austerity measures, cut in social security, rising prices and youth unemployment, and a strong opposition showing in the elections, the oft-seen government paralysis might return.

    Kuwait is the only GCC state to have a semblance of democratic elections and a strong parliament. However, in the last one decade, the country has witnessed repeated political stalemate between the parliament and the government. While the opposition groups have been pushing for political reforms, the ruling al-Sabah family has preferred to keep governance in its hand and focus on economic reforms. The November 26 elections have thrown up some intriguing scenarios. Having won nearly half the seats, if the opposition groups decide to unite under one banner and insist on taking on the government, the possibility of a fresh stalemate in the functioning of the government and the national assembly cannot be ruled out.

    Views expressed are of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the IDSA or of the Government of India.