Shiites lose seats as Kuwait votes yet again

Kuwaitis turned out in searing heat to elect yet another parliament on 27 July. Turnout was higher than December, and a half-hearted opposition boycott saw some liberals return to the assembly. Three days later, the emir announced a Ramadan pardon of all those convicted of offending him. Published in Gulf States News, 1 August 2013

In the heat of a Ramadan summer, Kuwaitis went to the polls on 27 July for the third time in less than two years. The turnout of around 52% – higher than the record low 40% of the last poll in December – only just topped the temperature, which climbed close to 50 degrees Fahrenheit during the day.

The election results – most notable for significant Shia losses – are difficult to read; the elected assembly seems to be slightly more balanced than in recent years, but the chances of it leading to any profound improvement in Kuwait’s prospects nonetheless seem slim. The new parliament is a loose collection of competing interest groups: one of the few things on which they can probably agree is a desire for parliament to have greater power.

The ruling Al-Sabah family, meanwhile, shows no sign of willingness to cede influence, even on relatively minor matters such as appointing more than one elected MP to the government. As a result, the debilitating power struggle between elected MPs and the appointed government which has characterised Kuwaiti politics is likely to continue, hobbling the economy in the process.

The main losers in this latest election were Kuwait’s Shia minority, who are thought to account for around a third of the population. They won just eight of the 50 seats in parliament, mostly in the first constituency, compared to 17 seats in the annulled parliament elected in December. Although they had been expected to lose ground, it was a heavier loss than some had predicted.

The turnaround in Shia fortunes was a result of the opposition boycott, so widely observed last year, crumbling. In December, a wide variety of Islamists, liberals and some of the country’s largest tribes shunned the poll, providing room for minorities to win seats. This time, the liberal National Democratic Alliance and some tribes that had ignored the last election, including the Awazem, did participate. Emir Sheikh Sabah Al-Ahmed Al- Sabah’s careful courting of tribal leaders in the months before the poll appears to have paid off.

Others continued with the boycott, however, their main grievance the continued use of the ‘one person, one vote’ system that the Constitutional Court approved on 16 June,when it also declared the December election invalid. “The failure of the opposition to agree a common platform has caused it to splinter while the ruling family has cleverly split the tribal bloc by reaching out to key tribal leaders and getting them back into the political process,” said one political analyst in the build-up to the poll.

Women also lost ground, with just two of eight candidates – Maasouma Al-Mubarak in the first constituency and Safa Al- Hashem in the third – returning to parliament, down from three women elected in December. Liberal candidates won at least three seats, and Sunni Islamists won seven, two more than last time.

Subdued campaign

The election campaign itself was uninspiring. Turnout may have been higher than December, but it remained significantly below the Kuwaiti average of around 60%. A combination of voter fatigue, scepticism about the ability of parliament to hold the powerful executive to account, and the decision to hold the election during Ramadan meant there was none of the drama that was seen in the run-up to the December poll, which saw large protests and fiery speeches by the likes of Musallam Al-Barrak – who ended up in court for his criticism of the emir.

The campaign was enlivened slightly by arrests over allegations of vote buying. There were also claims by some opposition leaders that the authorities were rather selective in which vote-buyers they went after. In comments carried by the local Arab Times, Ali Al-Rashid, a candidate in the second constituency and speaker of the outgoing parliament, attacked interior minister Sheikh Ahmad Al-Humoud for disregarding violations committed by some candidates. The emir’s decision to give a $4bn package of aid to Egypt, announced on 10 July, also provoked some criticism, notably from Nawaf Al-Fuzai, a member of the dissolved parliament.

One question now – presuming no technical irregularities are found in this latest election – will be the extent of opposition appetite for continued protest against the leadership. On 30 July, Emir Sheikh Sabah issued a pardon to all those convicted of insulting him, something which may, in the short term, assuage dissent. How the authorities react to future criticism will be more significant however; should a crackdown on free speech resume, the amnesty will have meant little.

While parliament’s away…

The month-long absence of a parliament gave the government the chance to release the year’s budget via an Emiri decree on 17 July. The deficit for the fiscal year 2013-14 is projected at KD7.43bn ($26.1 bn), although, as it is based on a relatively conservative oil price of $70/bbl, the government is all but certain to post another substantial budget surplus.

Total expenditure is estimated at KD21bn, including KD5.2bn on salaries, KD4.9bn on subsidised commodities and services, and KD2.2bn on construction projects, maintenance and related items. Oil revenues, at KD16.9bn, are projected to account for 93% of total state revenues.

Those figures highlight both the strength and weakness of the Kuwaiti economy. High oil revenues mean there is little urgency to reform and develop the economy, but such initiatives are desperately needed for its longer-term health. However, the standoff between parliament and the executive means that few reforms ever make it on to the statute book. The last parliament – largely seen as more pro-government, because of the opposition boycott – did manage to bring in some reform measures before it was dissolved, including the privatisation of Kuwait Airways, but the new parliament may well return to a less co-operative mood.

The assembly is due to convene on 6August, led in its first session by the oldest MP, Hamad Seif Al-Hershani. Prime minister Sheikh Jaber Al-Mubarak Al-Sabah submitted his resignation to the emir on 28 July, as per the constitution, which states that a new government must be appointed when a new parliament is elected. On 29 July, he was reappointed, as he often has been amid the comings and goings of Kuwait’s volatile assembly. At the time of writing, he had yet to form a new cabinet.

For the long-term health of the economy, the prime minister and parliament will need to find a modus vivendi, however difficult that might be to achieve. For the credibility of the country’s political system, it is equally vital that this election result is allowed to stand, and is not dismissed by the Constitutional Court like the two previous parliaments have been.