Thursday's parliamentary elections in Kuwait reflected the
intense drama unfolding in the country over the last four months -- youth-led
street protests, corruption charges that implicated 13 Members of Parliament
(MPs), the November storming of the parliament to protest corruption, the
dissolution of parliament by the emir, and the resignation of the embattled
prime minister. The election campaign was marked by vitriolic rhetoric and violence.
And the results empowered a loose Islamist-tribal coalition of opposition
candidates which disappointed liberals and set the stage for continued
political fireworks in the coming months. Despondent moderates surveying the
outcome repeatedly complained that, "nobody is representing the middle."
The election revolved around competition between a coalition of opposition candidates demanding greater transparency and
candidates who have been loyal to the government. Important political issues
loom large in the background in Kuwait -- things like an elected prime
minister, allowance of genuine political parties, an independent judiciary,
parliamentary independence from the government, and general progress toward a
constitutional democracy. However, demographic changes and the material issues
of welfare and corruption seem to have driven the election results --
particularly fury over evidence of official corruption and the absence of
accountability. This resulted in a 54 percent turnover in the parliament.
The loose Islamist-tribal coalition of opposition candidates
won about 34 seats in the 50-seat parliament. Islamist candidates won 14 seats,
while tribal candidates, half of whom might be called Islamist, took 21 seats.
The opposition group is clearly tapping into voter sentiment. Tribal opposition
MP Musallam al Barrak from the Fourth District was elected with the highest
number of votes ever cast for a candidate.
At the same time, the so-called Islamist-led opposition is
far from a monolithic coalition. Some Islamists are ideologues; others are not.
Religious fervor was not a central campaign call. Islamist candidates proved
themselves to be better organized and more politically savvy, articulate, and
eloquent. Many younger candidates have risen through social organizations and
civil society. They have been "groomed" to be effective leaders over the years.
Nor are tribal voters a monolithic bloc. There is an emerging generational
divide among tribal voters as many tribal MPs were implicated in the corruption
scandal. Interestingly, the controversial tribal primaries were not an accurate
predictor of the tribal vote in the general election.
Liberals fared poorly, however. None of the four women MPs elected
in the last parliament won seats; in fact, not one of the 23 female candidates
was elected. Liberals saw their seats reduced from eight to five, and Shiite from
nine to seven.[i] Shiite MPs
have generally voted pro-government. Further, the Shiite MPs include five
supported by the Shiite institutions while only two identify as liberal and
nationalist. There are only four Independents. Columnist and former Minister of
Information Sami al Nesf called the election results "a tsunami of wrath and
fury against governmental and legislative corruption...and against moderate
Columnist Waleed al Rujaib sees it as a "clear manifestation of tribal and
sectarian sentiments and a continuation of corruption in our society."[iii]
But for their own part, the relatively small liberal contingent is divided and
does not work together in any coherent way. One liberal voter summed the
electoral outcome this way, "We deserved this! We allowed this to happen."
There is real frustration, even anger, among Kuwaiti voters
about the state of the economy and development projects. In my small poll among
female voters in the Third District, they voiced concrete concerns about the
lack of jobs for Kuwaiti youth, the lack of housing for single and divorced
women, the absence of nurses in grade schools throughout Kuwait, and that
Kuwait has fallen far behind the economic powerhouses of Dubai and Doha, even
behind Saudi Arabia which has burgeoning new economic cities. They also
complained of too much wasta, the
rise of sectarian tension, and the uneven implementation of the constitution. For
example, "The constitution is not the problem. It's the way they pick and
choose what to implement."
The most powerful force driving the success of the
opposition appears to have been widespread anger at official corruption. That
rage will permeate the new parliament's political agenda. The penal code
stipulates that those involved in corruption should not be allowed to occupy
public office, a law that opposition figures are now using to challenge some of
the election results. At least 14 voters have filed an appeal to demand the
annulment of the election of Mohammad al Juwaihel, who was charged with
corruption. Law professor and newly-elected MP from the Fourth District, Obaid
Al Wasmi, spoke in alarming tones, "I swear by the Almighty God that I will be
scrutinizing the files of all those corrupt...I say to you that you have 24
hours to leave the country, I would not advise you to stay."
For some, the electoral results are not the issue. Political
Science professor at Kuwait University Ghanim al Najjar said before the
elections, "It does not matter who win or loses. What is important is how we
move on from there."[iv] And here,
many worry about the rising trend of sectarian agitation, derogatory, anti-tribal
rhetoric, sexist discourse, and violent clashes among competing camps.
Some liberals do fear the Islamists will "turn Kuwait into
Saudi Arabia." Upon his election, MP Mohammed Al Haif announced that, "The ground
is now fertile to amend the second article of the constitution to facilitate
the road to change making sharia the
sole source of legislation in Kuwait." The simple revision of one article --
changing "a" to "the" -- alters the legal framework of the state of Kuwait. An
official spokesperson soon countered that the government will not stand idle in
the face of such efforts. Women, in particular, fear the imposition of dress
codes and increased gender segregation. Two winners, MP Mohammed Hayef and MP
Faisal Al Mislem, had, in fact, previously formed a Committee to Curtail the
Negative Phenomena at Kuwait University. They set limits on women's dress and
integration on campus. They also targeted feminine men and masculine women. But
others point out that Islamists have long competed in Kuwaiti elections and
been represented in parliament, and are unlikely to behave in fundamentally
different ways today than in the past.
The greater fears lie in the backlash against the rising
salience of tribal voters. Many liberals view the tribes as something other
than civil citizens. It is reported that before the election, some tribes
convened in front of parliament and sang traditional war songs for its
dissolution. There is a sense that a "tribal mentality" is growing and that it
will destroy the institutions of civil society as tribal MPs lack any platform
of national development. Instead, they seek material incentives and patronage
-- higher salaries, more contracts, and the erasure of private debt. They will
take the law into their hands and defend their tribal MPs, right or wrong. This
is said to be their breaking point with the Islamists. One person said, "At
least the Islamist positions are based on rational thinking, even if I disagree
In some ways, the Kuwaiti government brought the "tribal"
problem on itself. In the 1960 and 1970s, when the government was fighting
against the liberals and nationalists, they brought in an estimated 200,000
tribal people from Saudi Arabia and gave them Kuwaiti citizenship. As one
person explained, "They were given huge parcels out [in] the suburbs. There was
no mingling or assimilation so the new bedu
formed neighborhoods in isolation from larger Kuwaiti society." The strategy has backfired. The
government has lost their loyalty and their vote. Tribes are now the largest
bloc in the opposition. The government still retains the enormous welfare costs
of the "new bedu" and their many
offspring. The tribes do indeed agitate for more material benefits from the
state -- which they consider only their fair share vis a vis the hadhar.
In a similar way, entire neighborhoods were constructed of
only Shiite citizens. An elderly voter bemoaned, "What is all this Sunni-Shi'a
talk? I never heard this growing up. There is no difference. We are all
Muslim." Another supported her saying, "In the past, Shi'a and Sunni lived
together. It was good. People try to make this division now." These incidents
must be coupled with the volatile anti-new bedu rhetoric of Al Juweihel and the
ensuing mob violence. And that unfortunately, exists alongside heightened
sectarian tensions that overlap the bedu/hadhar
tensions as the Shiite community is primarily urbanized. Taken together, it
appears that socio-political discourse in Kuwait has grown more strident.
What now? First, the convoluted and critical process of
naming people to a new cabinet is underway. A new cabinet must be formed before
the first session of the new parliament, which convenes on February 15. It is
important to keep a close eye on which, if any, opposition MPs are named to the
cabinet. If the prime minister appoints 4 to 6 members of the opposition, as it
did in 1992, it may well dissipate the opposition majority in parliament and
pave the way for some cooperation. Further, the government can frame this
action as "our respect for the democratic vote." But this would require that
the ruling family stand down from a confrontational path.
Secondly, much rides on the outcome of the vote for the
speaker of the parliament, selected by the MPs and the 15 members of the
cabinet. Ahmed Al Sadoun, the oldest Member of Parliament and a former speaker,
is a long-time leader of the opposition and a strong contender. He is focused
on increasing parliamentary control over the ruling family. Thirty-three MPs
have publicly announced their backing for Al Sadoun, including 18 Islamist MPs
who met yesterday, making him the clear frontrunner. If he wins, expect the
parliament to forcefully challenge the government.
Sadoun's main rival for the speakership appears to be
pro-government MP Mohammed Jassim al Saqer. He appeals to hadhar, liberals and merchants, and would likely push for a more
conciliatory approach to the government. MP Ali al Rashid withdrew his
name in an effort to boost the prospects for al Saqer, calling for "a new era of
forgiveness and to forget the past...for all Kuwaitis to unite." [v]
This seems unlikely in the face of the election campaign. If he wins, there
will likely be turbulence inside the parliament.
Thirdly, once the parliament begins its work, expect a push
for relatively quick passage of new anti-corruption and financial disclosure
laws. Many clamor for an independent anti-corruption commission. Some people
want to try the former prime minister on corruption charges and to demand full
disclosure of oil revenue and sovereign wealth funds. Those issues would
respond to the popular mood, but will likely prove too contentious to go
The other potential source of conflict in the early days
will come over the place of Islam. The Popular Bloc announced that it would
support the move to amend the Kuwaiti Constitution so that Islam is the sole
source of legislation. This move, strongly opposed by liberals and the ruling
family, requires two-thirds of the assembly to approve it as well as the
approval of the emir. It is unlikely to pass at this juncture but the debate
will reveal much about the internal dynamics of coalitions.
While this sounds alarming, it is worth recalling that
Kuwait has a long experience with parliamentary politics, a vibrant civil
society, and a robust political discussion that is open when compared with its
Gulf Cooperation Council neighbors. Still, the repeated elections force actors
to expend tremendous resources, time, and intellectual energy on campaigns that
might be better spent tackling concrete issues of political accountability and
national economic development.
Gwenn Okruhlik is a Brookings Doha fellow/Qatar University. She would like to thank Nathan Brown, Kristen Diwan, Lindsey Stephenson, and Mary Ann Tetreault
for their valuable comments.
[i] The two they
lost were previously held by women, neither who were ‘religious' candidates.
[ii] Al Anba, February 4 2012.
[iii] Al Rai, February 4 2012.
[iv] In Isabel
Coles, "Kuwait Elections Offer Slim Chance for Reform," Reuters, January 18,
[v] Al Watan,
February 4 2012
YASSER AL-ZAYYAT/AFP/Getty Images