The financial windfall from oil and gas exports may boost regional officials’ ambitious economic diversification plans but doesn’t make them foolproof.
On December 5, Kuwaitis headed to the polls in large numbers despite the coronavirus pandemic to send a message of change to their government. Voters vented their frustration over government corruption scandals and a sense of aimlessness in the face of mounting financial and governance problems by punishing incumbents and returning to Parliament some former members known for standing up to the leadership alongside some fresh new faces. No women will be among them as a record number of female candidates failed to make the cut in a crowded field. The new emir and his chosen prime minister will have their hands full navigating populist sentiment while making difficult decisions to provide greater opportunities for youth and set the country on a path of long-term financial sustainability.
Elections Under the Coronavirus Pandemic
The 2020 parliamentary elections took place under the extraordinary conditions of the coronavirus pandemic. Kuwaitis’ love for retail politics was tempered but not thwarted by requirements of social distancing. There were no campaign tents where candidates usually meet and court voters through public events and free meals, but the diwaniya circuit of informal gatherings attached to homes proceeded largely undeterred. These conditions likely disadvantaged women candidates who lack access to these male gatherings.
The limitations on social gatherings amplified the importance of virtual campaigns, expanding an increasingly sophisticated campaign infrastructure. Talk shows on traditional media have been expanded to new formats on social media platforms, such as Instagram. WhatsApp remains a critical form of political communication, as is Twitter for political debate. Most top candidates employed political strategists and media consultants to help craft their image, message, and outreach to constituents across these platforms, with some deploying lavishly produced social media ads. Nonetheless, personal and communal ties continue to be the bedrock of most successful parliamentary campaigns.
In a nod to the pandemic, a special voting location was created specifically for voters suffering from Covid-19. While standard measures were taken to maintain hygiene and enforce social distancing, this broke down in some districts that experienced crowding. Turnout was surprisingly high at around 65%, a slight rise from the last election despite the pandemic and a testament to voter interest, motivation, and mobilization.
Incumbents – and Women – Lose Out
The results of the election confirmed the preelection polling, which portrayed an electorate angered over the meager output of Parliament and government and desirous of a National Assembly willing to tackle issues of corruption and protection of public funds. Nearly two-thirds of parliamentarians lost their seats: a large number although not unprecedented in a Kuwaiti political system that encourages high turnover. Underlining this shift was the stunning rejection of some long-standing members of parliament who had appeared untouchable. This anti-incumbent mood stretched across political camps, felling the Shia stalwart Saleh Ashour, the Salafi firebrand Mohammed Hayef, and Khalaf al-Enezi, a pro-government member of parliament who had served since the 1980s.
Incumbents’ losses included Kuwait’s sole female legislator, Safaa Al Hashem, whose support collapsed in this election. None of the other women candidates were elected – Alia al-Khaled was the closest, hitting the 13th slot of 10 representatives elected in the second district – meaning that Kuwait will be devoid of female representation in Parliament. This headline-grabbing fact sets Kuwait notably behind the trend in the Gulf region, where women are being appointed to top political positions in other representative bodies, such as the Federal National Council in the United Arab Emirates and Council of Representatives in Bahrain. It will come as a huge disappointment for those in Kuwaiti civil society working to empower women politically, and elect a body more representative of the electorate, and is certain to revive discussion of the need for quotas to overcome the structural disadvantages and social norms that have thwarted female candidates.
Some of the most high-profile wins were from those championing the opposition platform, which includes the pardoning of former members of parliament living in exile abroad, and the revocation of the 2012 election law seen as disadvantaging the opposition. Prominent among them is the hard-line activist Salafi Bader al-Dahoum, who successfully overturned in court the annulment of his candidacy due to an earlier conviction connected to protests in 2011. This judicial ruling may open the door for other similarly banned opposition candidates to litigate their return to politics.
Dahoum wasted no time in inviting newly elected members of parliament to his diwaniya to coordinate the takedown of the current head of parliament, Marzouq al-Ghanem, in favor of new leadership, which they will select through a vote. The attendance of 38 of the 50 members is a good indication of the increased strength of the opposition, although that commitment is sure to be tested in the face of competing objectives and a government with ample resources to win their cooperation. A similar, albeit smaller, coalition that gathered after the 2016 election soon dwindled, resulting in a rather compliant Parliament.
A New National Direction?
With political parties banned, Kuwait’s Parliament is dominated by political independents and shaped by communal ties more than political agendas. The role of political societies with distinct programs has been weakened, due to voter dissatisfaction with the polarization engendered by these political groupings and by the passage of the 2012 election law following the court-ordered dissolution of Parliament.
Political analysis of electoral outcomes, then, often seems reduced to assessing the relative shifts in representation among mostly identity-based blocs. What is the weight of liberals versus conservatives, or among rival Islamist movements? How did the Shia representation fare, and what is the tribal composition of Parliament? By these measures the 2020 Parliament will tilt more conservative, with the retirement and defeat of more liberal candidates and the Sunni Islamist camp maintaining its presence with both the Muslim Brotherhood and Salafis each holding three seats. Shia representation remains unchanged at six members. Always powerful tribal constituencies gained even further ground, with perhaps the most notable shift coming in the strengthening of Kuwait’s two largest tribal groupings in Parliament, the Awazem and the Mutair.
Yet this type of analysis is inadequate to understand both the political postures of members and the shifting political dynamics in the country. Indeed, one Kuwaiti observer condemned this kind of scorekeeping as itself part of the political problem, reflecting “dedication to factionalism, racism, tribalism and sectarianism.” Looking at the dynamics within these distinct political constituencies, not the scorecard among them, provides hints of the beginning of change. There was a new willingness to defy political elites, clearly evident across Shia, Sunni Islamist, and tribal constituencies.
Shia communities have been among the government’s most loyal supporters, holding close to the ruling family, especially over the past decade as regional dynamics in the Gulf states fueled sectarian tensions. This election revealed a new willingness to buck that consensus, through the return of the former Member of Parliament Hassan al-Johar, who is on good terms with the mostly Sunni-led opposition. It also revealed new generation voices, such as Hesham al-Salah and Ali al-Qattan, both of whom campaigned independently of Shia political societies and put forth reformist agendas.
The erosion of tribal authority was clear in the poor performance of many of the candidates selected in the tribal primaries meant to consolidate support behind chosen representatives. These primaries are illegal but are implicitly condoned by the government, being widely and openly covered in the media. Yet in at least two instances, more opposition-oriented candidates who lost tribal primaries but refused to bow out went on to best their tribal rivals in the general election. The competition for influence within these parliamentary tribal groupings will be something to watch, especially as the most forceful voices of opposition have emerged from among these constituencies.
This new political defiance was in evidence even within Kuwait’s most disciplined political society, the Muslim Brotherhood-backed Islamic Constitutional Movement. Internal dissent by younger members forced the retirement of their parliamentary leader, Mohammed al-Dallal, in favor of a new generation candidate, Abdulaziz al-Suqabi. His successful election speaks to some staying power for the organization, in defiance of the regional campaign against the Muslim Brotherhood movement by neighboring Saudi Arabia and the UAE.
Leadership Vote, and Bigger Challenge Ahead
The common theme emerging among many of the successful youth candidates across constituencies, such as Qattan, Suqabi, and another new member, Abdullah al-Mudhaf, is a focus on the nation and its revitalization, while rejecting, or at least downplaying, the communal identities that have characterized – and often divided – Kuwaiti politics. This youth sentiment and the urgency of responding to the mounting national challenges was underlined in a report written by 29 young Kuwait University scholars and issued on the eve of the elections, ominously titled “Before it’s too late.” It clearly delineates the structural imbalances – fiscal, demographic, labor market, weak educational system – underlined by the heavy dependence on oil revenue as well as the shared sacrifices needed to set Kuwait on a more sustainable path.
These economic and social problems – worsening under the twin challenges of the pandemic and related oil crisis – are getting harder to ignore, even for a relatively wealthy country. Immediately facing the new Parliament will be the passage of a new debt law to allow the country to overcome its mounting deficit. And difficult decisions await on value-added taxes, agreed upon by the Gulf Cooperation Council but not yet implemented by Kuwait due to parliamentary opposition. The new Parliament, infused with anti-elite populism, may make it more difficult for the government to force through measures without political compromise on issues of corruption and political governance. Yet there are limits on this rejectionism as well. The ruling family retains the constitutional power to dissolve the Parliament and call for new elections – a measure that was used frequently under the late emir, Sabah al-Ahmed al-Sabah.
The battle lines are already being drawn in the contest for the leadership of the Parliament. Ghanem, the scion of an influential merchant family, was reelected with strong support from his constituency. He has been very effective at managing the Parliament in ways that served the agenda of the ruling family-led government under Sabah al-Ahmed. But his job will be more difficult under this new Parliament, where indeed, the status of “opposition” is mostly defined by a member’s willingness to challenge Ghanem. His survival may hinge on the commitment of the newly ensconced Emir Nawaf al-Ahmed al-Sabah to defend him. And that in turn will be determined by the approach the emir wants to take toward this elected body. Does he view Ghanem as an asset alongside a forceful government in subduing the Parliament? Or is he seen as a liability in building relations with this new, seemingly more confrontational membership? After these elections, and the defeat of once key government intermediaries, there remains some courting yet to do.
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