Kuwait’s opposition notched a major victory in parliamentary elections held on November 26, winning around half of the National Assembly’s 50 elected seats.
Though polls were originally scheduled for June 2017, Kuwaiti Emir Sabah al-Ahmad al-Sabah dissolved the legislature on October 16 after the government was unable to make headway in passing subsidy reforms – even in the presence of an overwhelmingly loyalist assembly.
While the previous parliament staved off the implementation of vastly unpopular austerity measures, it also passed a controversial law barring those who had been jailed for insulting the emir from contesting parliamentary elections, as well as a law mandating DNA testing for all citizens.
Such policies, as well as widespread belief of government corruption in Kuwait, galvanized opposition blocs that had previously boycotted elections to take part in the polls. It was thought that from parliament, at the very least, these opposition groups could block the most offensive proposed policies; and, at most, they could push forward reforms to enhance public participation in government.
The newly elected parliament is the first to include members of the opposition since February 2012, when it controlled an impressive 34 seats. The Constitutional Court dissolved Kuwait’s last oppositional parliament after only four months on the grounds that it was unconstitutional, as it had not been voted in under the new electoral law approved by the emir in 2012. The court thus replaced the troublesome legislature with the loyalist body that had been elected in 2009, and elections held in July 2012 yielded a parliament with a similar political composition, due to an opposition boycott.
Kuwait’s opposition had been united in boycotting the elections, in protest against the fact that they were held under an electoral law unilaterally imposed by the emir in 2012. The law grants each citizen only one vote per district, which is thought to give an advantage to independent candidates over members of political blocs based on tribal groupings. Members of the opposition calculated that they could continue agitating for reform from outside of parliament, while also showing the Kuwaiti public problems with government functioning in their absence.
But this time, most of Kuwait’s opposition – which includes both secular as well as Islamist groups like the Muslim Brotherhood and Salafis – chose to contest the polls. Opposition parties had been unable to effect major changes from outside parliament, and in the face of government intransigence on the electoral law.
Their decision paid off: Sixty percent of seats in parliament changed hands in November’s election, amid 70 percent voter turnout – quite an indictment of the previous assembly. The Brotherhood won four of the five seats it contested, and Salafis won four seats.
The opposition’s new face
The opposition victory is not surprising, even though it was given very little time to prepare and campaign. The makeup of the Kuwaiti opposition, however, has changed in three important ways.
First, independent Salafis ran in the elections, since Salafi blocs, some of which are pro-government, were divided about whether to run. While the pro-government blocs had a poor showing, independent Salafis won four seats. This signals a potential shift in the Salafi landscape towards the opposition, and also away from previously organised political blocs, which could change or merge in light of these results. As Salafis have become ever more active in the political opposition, they have increasingly come to resemble the Muslim Brotherhood. Members of both these Islamist groups have advocated for an elected prime minister and a law to legalize political parties. If they join together with secular groups with similar views on the need for political reform, the government could be pressured to implement changes.
Second, smaller tribes asserted themselves in the elections for the first time, at the expense of the larger tribes that tend to dominate with their sophisticated system of primaries. Interestingly, though tribes in outlying districts have traditionally supported the government, some have joined the opposition, lamenting what they perceive as their economic and political marginalization at the hands of the urban elite. While tribal leaders tend to be selected from within certain tribes, Musallam al-Barrak of the Mutair tribe was the first such leader to become influential at the national level, finding a political support base even after boycotting his tribe’s primaries. Because al-Barrak remains in prison for insulting the emir, the Mutair tribe was divided about whether to run, and only one member of the tribe won a seat – a major setback for a group that tends to hold about four seats.
Third, the new parliament has a high number of newly elected young MPs, despite a continued boycott of the polls by some segments of the youth population. Seven members of the youth constituency gained seats, including four former MPs. Many of them favor government reform, with a particular focus on fighting corruption in the Kuwaiti government. Nasser al-Dosari, at 30 years old, became the youngest MP ever elected in Kuwait. Despite the new opening for young people, only one woman (former MP Safa al-Hashem) was elected; she is the ninth woman to serve as a Kuwaiti MP since suffrage was granted in 2005.
Three of the other largest tribes in Kuwait – Ajman, Matran, and Awazem – also faced losses, winning only seven seats as opposed to their usual 15. Tribal constituencies will still be represented, though primarily by members of smaller tribes. Members of these tribes are less experienced in parliament. However, they have voiced their concerns about equal treatment under the law and corruption in the Kuwaiti government system, concerns shared by many members of the larger tribes. Stricter enforcement of tribal primaries harmed traditionally dominant groups, as did the one person one vote law, which forced large tribes to divide their electorate among different candidates. Though tribal composition has changed, tribes seem to be an increasingly important part of Kuwait’s political opposition, while urban elites – traditionally members of the opposition – have become more supportive of maintaining the status quo.
Will the opposition fragment?
It remains to be seen how well Kuwait’s broad-based opposition movement, which includes secularists and Islamists as well as a considerable number of independents, will cooperate. Its members are already struggling to decide on a candidate for speaker of the parliament to run against the incumbent, Marzouq al-Ghanim.
If the opposition bloc, a group of 27 MPs, manages to come together to challenge the government, another early dissolution of parliament is likely. The bloc has already listed some of its major priorities as examining the plight of Kuwait’s stateless population, addressing revocations of citizenship for political reasons, safeguarding the welfare package and incomes currently enjoyed by citizens, and changing the electoral law.
The emir has re-appointed the former prime minister to appoint a cabinet, implying his reluctance to accept political change. Meanwhile, the opposition has already voiced its intention of questioning a number of government ministers, even though these have not yet been formally appointed. With a newly activist and oppositional parliament, it is unclear how much political reform will be enacted, especially if the opposition fragments and if the cabinet is composed primarily of incumbents.
In any case, parliamentary debates under the present legislature will reflect a broader segment of the Kuwaiti population, now that the opposition can voice its concerns directly and potentially effect political change.
Dr. Courtney Freer is a research officer at the LSE Kuwait Programme.