Friday,20 October, 2017
Current issue | Issue 1125, 6 - 12 December 2012
Friday,20 October, 2017
Issue 1125, 6 - 12 December 2012

Ahram Weekly

Misusing elections

All is not well with Kuwait’s nascent political experience in light of the election results, writes Omayma Abdel-Latif

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Al-Ahram Weekly

The results of the parliamentary elections held in Kuwait on 1 December were hardly surprising. The Kuwaiti ruling family might now have the toothless parliament it wanted but the price was too high; sacrificing the only nascent democratic experience in the whole of the Gulf region. Calls by Kuwaiti opposition to boycott the elections have clearly been reflected in the voters’ turnout with the percentage of participation set at 26 per cent — the Information Ministry set the figure at 42 per cent.

In previous elections the percentage moved between 40 to 45 per cent. The number of eligible voters in Kuwait is set at 105,625. The results of the boycott varied from one constituency to another. The only surprising result perhaps was the number of seats gained by Shia MPs reaching 17 out of the 50-seat parliament, making it the biggest number of seats the Shia have gained in the history of Kuwaiti parliamentarian life. The rest (33 seats) went to Sunni MPs.

This could be explained by the fact that the majority of Shia constituencies did not boycott the election. Also of the newly-elected MPs, 32 MPs are entering the parliament for the first time ever. Their lack of parliamentarian experience is a minus and is bound to reflect on their performance.

Opposition sources say a preliminary reading of election results would find that the new parliament is not representative of  Kuwaiti society. One of the outcomes of the boycott is, unlike in previous assemblies, representatives of two of Kuwait’s biggest tribes (Al-Awazem and Al-Mutran) are absent in the newly-elected parliament.

Another outcome is what one source described as Shia overrepresentation in the assembly. While they represent 16 per cent of the Kuwaiti population, they gained 34 per cent of the assembly seats. Those new MPs acquired their seats because of the boycott and not because of their political experience.

There are growing fears that the election results as they stand are more likely to exacerbate the political standoff between the country’s opposition and the ruling elite.

On 5 November the Prince of Kuwait Sabah Al-Ahmed Al-Sabah said that ratifying the amendments of the electoral law was a procedure to “protect national unity”. The opposition boycott of the election threatens to put an end to strong political participation which has traditionally been the highlight of Kuwaiti political life.

Opposition figures described the new amendments as a third coup against the Kuwaiti constitution by the Kuwaiti ruling elite. “This elite is adopting a go-it-alone attitude in terms of decision-making and legislation and the country’s wealth and resources,” wrote Saad Bin Tafla Al-Ajami, former information minister and a prominent opposition figure. The opposition argues that the government has unilaterally amended the law without honouring parliament’s mandate. The amendments led to decreasing the number of candidates from four to one  that each voter is allowed to elect in each constituency. Critics from the opposition argued against the law which allows more pro-government candidates to be elected, hence resulting in a parliament unable to challenge the government or question its policies.

Kuwait is divided into five electoral constituencies; each constituency is represented by 10 members in parliament. Before 2006 it was composed of 25 constituencies. The opposition called for reducing the number of electoral constituency to end vote-buying and other political rigging.

The Kuwaiti opposition — Salafis, liberals and Arab nationalists — succeeded in rallying mass support for its stand against the amendments. Tens of thousands of protesters took to the street in “a nation’s dignity” marches on 20 and 30 November. It was a scene reminiscent of the Arab Spring demonstrations witnessed in Cairo, Tunisia and Sanaa.

The opposition estimated the numbers at 150,000 protesters making them the biggest political rallies in the history of Kuwait. Their demand was to put pressure on the Emir to revoke his decree and to let an elected parliament discuss the amendments instead of a pro-palace parliament.

During the past years, the Kuwaiti parliament managed to carve a role in preserving the nascent democratic experience by insisting on its prerogative to question the government. Parliament is empowered to withdraw confidence from ministers and the prime minister. A ban on political parties had a negative impact on the development of Kuwaiti political life. The prince plays the role of arbiter among the different factions.

One point of contention between the government and the opposition is that the latter was of the view that the dissolved assembly (elected in February this year) should have completed its term. It criticised the urgency with which the government rushed to dissolve the parliament and make the constitutional amendments. “The election law was not in fact on the government agenda and had this been the case they would have presented it to the assembly during its session and through the normal course of legislation,” said a Kuwaiti opposition source.

Traditionally, the relationship between the Kuwaiti government and parliament has been strained. The government viewed the assembly as an obstacle to development and a source of crisis and tension in the country, whereas political forces across the spectrum viewed the government and the royal family as not committed to democratic values.

The opposition’s frustration with the government and the ruling family is understandable. The government has serially and petulantly interfered with the creation of better democratic institutions, disbanding one elected parliament after another. Parliament wants a constitutional monarchy.

There are no kudos for the prince. “If the next parliament was an opposition-free parliament, it means that things are not quite right in Kuwait,”noted a Western observer based in Kuwait.

The Kuwaiti Constitutional Court is due to look into a suit filed by the opposition contesting the constitutionality of the amendments of electoral law. The court ruling is expected to come out after the elections.

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