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Kuwaitis Once Again Revolt at the Ballot Box: But Will It Result in Change?

As Kuwaitis voted for their 16th parliament on December 5th they again sent one message loud and clear: they are dissatisfied with the status quo. In a strong reproof to the outgoing National Assembly, voters overturned a majority of seats, 62 percent of the legislative body lost their seats, repeating the turnover defeat of 60 percent of incumbents in the 2016 election. Frustration comes as no surprise given that the country is reckoning with a pandemic that has adversely affected its well-established largesse to citizens, spotlighted its pervasive corruption, and highlighted systemic economic inequalities.

Kuwait has the most politically powerful elected parliament in the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC). Yet many Kuwaitis view the outgoing National Assembly as a toothless body given the fact that the government had a relatively smooth ride with the parliament. It is no coincidence that the outgoing body was the seventh parliament to complete its full four-year term since the National Assembly’s inception in 1963. The incoming 2020 parliament marks a win for tribes and for the youth, a continuing status quo for Islamists, and a complete loss for women.

As resources run scarce in Kuwait, social stratification will illuminate systemic economic inequalities, emboldening populist sentiment among MPs. Yet is still unclear how effective the incoming parliament will be. A productive parliament will need to coordinate with the executive branch and reach consensus on many pressing and high-priority issues, especially for the sake of the country’s economic health. The opposition has gained about half of the seats in the National Assembly, but the question remains – how oppositional is the opposition?

How ‘Oppositional’ is the New Opposition?

Saturday’s election can be viewed as a win for Kuwait’s opposition bloc. Nearly half the incoming MPs are perceived as opposition. Yet nuance is important. Because of a large number of independents, it is still unclear whether the new MPs are merely reform-oriented or full-fledged opposition figures. The opposition has a long list of crucial demands that include more civil liberties, easing censorship, ending punitive revocation of citizenship, amnesty for former MPs or activists abroad, eradicating corruption, and most notably, restoring a multi-vote electoral system. Other traditional agenda items include demands for an elected prime minister and the legalization of political parties. It’s noteworthy to mention that many analysts regarded almost half of the MPs in the 2016 parliament as oppositional, yet they were unsuccessful in achieving their most important agenda items.

A change in the electoral law in 2012 caused each citizen the right to vote for only one candidate gave an electoral advantage to independents. In prior elections, each citizen could vote for four candidates per district, which was advantageous to members of political coalitions. Therefore, the opposition MPs are not a well-defined political bloc, but rather individuals with diverse ideologies and agendas. The grouping includes but is not limited to Islamists, liberals, and tribal figures. Once again, those who proclaim themselves to be opposition represent slightly below half of the parliament and consist of freshmen MPs. We cannot discount the possibility that coalition-building could fail again and reforms fumble as they have in the past.

Winners and Losers

Major Tribes Achieved a Stronghold

The tribal constituencies smartened up and quickly adapted to the one-vote electoral system this time around. The tribes managed to win the lion’s share of the parliament, securing 29 seats. Kuwait’s major tribes achieved a strong comeback from their loss in the 2016 parliamentary elections in which they won only seven seats, less than half of their usual number. The Awazem tribe won seven seats while Matran had six, followed by the Ajman with four. In 2016, the Matran were divided over whether to run, and as a result, only one member of the tribe won a seat, which was much lower than usual. The tribes were also able to win more seats because they informally conducted primary elections to consolidate tribal support behind preferred candidates, although technically it’s not a new practice. Tribal social solidarity and exclusivity give the tribes an advantage over other political blocs in organizing and building coalitions.

It’s noteworthy to mention that tribal MPs can come from differing ideological camps. Although tribal MPs from the fourth and fifth districts, located in outlying areas of Kuwait, have historically tended to support the government, recently they have shown more sympathy for the opposition. The reason being is many of them believe that the government has marginalized them economically and politically compared to the urban elite. Each of the five districts in Kuwait, regardless of size, has ten MPs representing them. Of note, both the fourth and fifth districts have almost double the number of eligible voters when compared to more urban districts, namely the first and second districts. Thus the electoral design sentences the fourth and fifth districts with less representation for their larger populations.

A Gain for the Youth

The election results with 30 candidates under the age of 45 indicate that the large youth voter turnout looks to their cohort to take the lead for change and reform. Covid can partly be credited for the surge in young elected MPs as digital platforms upended traditional campaign models, making way for the digitally savvy youth. Young people used social media platforms such as Sawt Al-Shabab on Instagram to engage with candidates on issues of importance to them. Also, youth-initiated online platforms to track voting records such as Raqib50 have allowed youth to hold parliament to account. Finally, many young people who usually would have traveled abroad to study remained in Kuwait and were readily available to vote.

Thanks to the repression of civil liberties during the post-Arab Spring era, the youth, a majority in Kuwait, often express a hesitance to push back against the government to the same extent as the opposition from previous generations. They witnessed the exile and a revolving prison door for many opposition leaders. Youth in Kuwait also face another challenge that perpetuates a generational gap in their representation. Kuwait law requires that all candidates for parliament must be above thirty years old to run, a law that marginalizes youth seeking to have a voice in Kuwaiti politics. Housing and employment opportunities are of utmost importance for the youth. Unfortunately, issues related to economic progress highlight the reality that Kuwait is facing one of its most dangerous economic challenges, a challenge that will only reinforce the political deadlock that normally prevents economic reform.

Islamists Strength Remains Steady

The Islamists maintained their presence in the incoming parliament and are generally divided between pro-government candidates and various types of activist opposition figures. Both the Muslim Brotherhood and Shia mostly retained their seats. The Muslim Brotherhood-linked Islamic Constitutional Movement (ICM) won three out of four seats it contested while candidates from the Shia minority population won six. A notable win for the Shia is Hasan Johar, a veteran MP that leans oppositional and is known for having good relations across the aisle. For the second term in a row, the Islamic Salafi Alliance (ISA) did not gain any seats. Other independent Islamists have also won seats.

Bader Al-Dahoum, an incoming MP, merits watching. He has a strong chance to emerge as the leader of the opposition; he checks all the required boxes needed to unite an opposition bloc. He is young, Islamist, tribal, and in the opposition. He was a member of the dismantled 2012 parliament and has strong relations with Musallem Al-Barrak, the leader of the opposition now in exile.

Not One Woman Elected

It is striking that for the first time since 2009, there will be no female MP in Kuwait’s National Assembly. The only (and longest-serving) female that held a seat in the legislature, Safa Al-Hashim, lost her race. The female candidate closest to winning, Alia Al-Khalid, won 13th place in the second district. With losses of liberals and gains for conservatives, it is expected that issues concerning women will move to the backburner. The Kuwait electorate’s preference for tribal MPs raises more obstacles for the promotion of women candidates.

Not only do entrenched societal attitudes hamper women’s participation in the National Assembly, but the one-vote electoral system exacerbated the challenges for women gaining seats. There is an alarming lack of funding for female candidates and the fact that political venues (mainly diwaniyas) are generally male-dominated forums adds to the obstacles. Grassroot initiatives to tackle the gross underrepresentation of women in the parliament, such as Mudhawi’s List have been important in giving women a voice but a state-led approach that pushes equally as hard desperately needs to be accompanied by bottom-up pushes.

What’s Next?

Formulating a New Government

The formation of the new government will be a top priority. A new cabinet will be formed before the new parliament’s inauguration on December 15th. As expected, the emir reappointed Sheikh Sabah Al-Khaled as the Prime Minister to form the government. It is important for any progress that the incoming cabinet be widely accepted. The onus is on the government to select ministers that are both qualified and able to maintain a collegial relationship with the parliament in order to avoid deadlock, scandals, and corruption charges. The last government was so deeply paralyzed that it went through three rounds of cabinet reshuffles. Given that almost half the parliament is considered opposition, the government will have concerns about the questioning of ministers.

In the incoming parliament, some of the MPs seek to unite under one banner with a common agenda, despite the absence of significant political blocs. In fact, many of the newly-elected MPs have already gathered to discuss their agendas and perhaps their preferences for the speaker of parliament. Yet a very similar meeting happened with the opposition in 2016’s dubious parliament. So far, two candidates are competing for the position, the former speaker, Marzouq Al-Ghanam (a representative of the business elite) and Bader Al-Humaidi (a former minister). Although it is too early to judge, it is evident that the opposition is advocating for Bader rather than Marzouq since there is a festering tension towards the business elite and Marzouq is viewed to be part of the reason that the 2016 parliament was ineffective.

Self-Sabotage: A Reoccuring Theme for Economic Reform

Self-sabotage was once again on Kuwait’s ballot. If campaign rhetoric indicates the direction of policy then the government will clash with the parliament if it tries to implement necessary austerity measures and economic reforms. During the campaign, candidates pledged to write off personal loans or protect government salaries in the face of the highest deficit in Kuwait’s history, compounded by the outgoing parliament’s decision to block plans for government borrowing to close the deficit. A priority for both the executive branch and the new National Assembly will be the passing of debt legislation permitting the government to tap into international debt markets to plug its expanding deficit.

Ironically, Kuwait’s National Assembly is historically known to be rife with corruption even though candidates campaign on eliminating it. Conflicts of interest are a pervasive phenomenon. Regrettably, many MPs were elected by their families and tend to promise the allocation of public goods for relatives in return. The regularity of buying votes in parliamentary elections raises even greater concerns. In 2018 the parliament approved legislation intended to regulate conflicts of interest among public officials. Yet shortly thereafter, in April 2019 the Constitutional Court ruled the legislation unconstitutional on the basis that it failed to accurately define what entails a conflict of interest.

The government faces a painful economic dilemma. The witnessing of pervasive corruption over the years feeds into the obstinacy of the Kuwaiti public against austerity measures, making reform a hard sell. Historically, the national assembly has always found itself in a state of constant deadlock in trying to implement reform, caught in the crossfire between populist agendas and business elite interests that undermine the economic reform needed to benefit the society as a whole. Kuwait cannot afford to continue on this path or it will eventually face economic ruin.

Pending Agenda Items Still Linger

Numerous important agenda items for the opposition, and more broadly Kuwaiti society, have stalled the last four years. With austerity underway, MPs have offered little solutions to solve Kuwait’s budget woes and instead pusillanimously scapegoated the sector of society that has no vote, namely the expatriates. They propose to resolve the demographic imbalance by deporting expatriates and imposing costs on expatriates. This would hardly advance Kuwait’s economy but rather remain a distraction from other deep-rooted structural dynamics that stunt Kuwait’s progress.

Speaking of demographic imbalances, the last parliament failed to address the challenges for the thousands of stateless people in Kuwait, an issue ongoing since the founding of the country. It would be a major triumph to resolve the plight of the stateless, but in the current resource-poor environment, it is difficult to imagine that the government will choose this moment to resolve this long overdue human rights struggle.

Every new emir brings a new approach to dealing with the parliament. The opposition and many others are united for the restoration of the muli-vote system, but the likelihood of changing it arguably requires the backing of the Emiri Diwan. Another issue of importance, the passing of an amnesty for former MPs or activists abroad, has already failed twice when the outgoing parliament brought them to the floor. It is unclear if their new parliament will be able to successfully pass legislation that would offer aid to the fugitives. Historically, as a good-faith gesture whenever a new emir takes power, he customarily pardons individuals under state scrutiny or in exile. This can be one way to mend old wounds and bring opposition figures into the fold.

To address Kuwait’s difficult economic and political challenges, there needs to be collaboration between both the legislative and the executive branches. This will require a careful balancing act for MPs between not being too oppositional and becoming overly conciliatory. If the opposition presses too hard, it risks being dissolved by the emir. If the MPs are too agreeable, then meaningful progress will be out of the question and they risk being voted out of office in 2024, as destined for the last two National Assemblies.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of Gulf International Forum.

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Dr. Dania Thafer is the Executive Director of Gulf International Forum. Her area of expertise is on the Gulf region’s geopolitics, US-Gulf relations, and the political economy of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) states. She is also a Professorial Lecturer at the Center for Contemporary Arab Studies at Georgetown University. Dr. Thafer been widely published on matters concerning the Arab Gulf states including several articles and publications. She has co-authored two edited books “The Arms Trade, Military Services and the Security Market in the Gulf States: Trends and Implications” and “The Dilemma of Security and Defense in the Gulf Region”. Dr. Thafer is currently writing a book focused on the effect of state-business relations on economic reform in the GCC states. Previously, she worked at the National Defense University’s Near East South Asia Center for Strategic Studies. Dr. Thafer has a master’s degree in Political Economy from New York University, and PhD specialized in the Political Economy and International Relations of the GCC states from American University in Washington, DC.

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