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Kuwaiti parliamentary candidate Rakan Youssef Al Nesif (centre) celebrates his victory with supporters at his campaign headquarters in Kuwait City.
Kuwaiti parliamentary candidate Rakan Youssef Al Nesif (centre) celebrates his victory with supporters at his campaign headquarters in Kuwait City.

Setback for Islamists in Kuwaiti assembly

Liberal and tribal alliances make the biggest election gains, while Shiite representatives lose more than half their seats in the 50-member parliament. Elizabeth Dickinson reports

Liberal and tribal alliances made the biggest gains in Kuwait's weekend elections, while Shiite representatives lost more than half their seats in the 50-member parliament.

The new assembly - the sixth in Kuwait in as many years - excludes the government's fiercest critics from Islamist and populist groups, many of whom boycotted the election. Analysts said the make-up of the new parliament indicated how frayed the opposition had become.

A broad-tent coalition of Islamists, tribalists, liberals and youth that brought tens of thousands to the streets as recently as six months ago has now largely collapsed into a series of smaller camps, each with divergent political ambitions.

While some of the opposition's proclaimed goals, such as the legalisation of political parties, still earn sympathy, voters seem to have cooled to the opposition itself.

"The main issue that we see is how the opposition fragmented," said Wafa Al Sayed, an analyst on Kuwait at the International Institute for Strategic Studies in Bahrain.

"Across the board, there were a lot of people who were sympathising with the opposition. But now they are saying the opposition hasn't delivered," Mr Al Sayed said.

Opposition groups orchestrated a boycott of the election in December that pushed turnout down to a record 40 per cent, compared with the historical average of 65 per cent.

Shiite groups, who did not boycott, claimed a record 17 seats in the ensuing assembly.

But a court dissolved the parliament in June, and in advance of Saturday's vote the government had campaigned strongly for opposition groups to re-enter the political process.

Key segments of the former boycott coalition, most notably tribal and liberal candidates, heeded the call.

Turnout was 52.5 per cent according to the information ministry.

More than half of the elected MPs are first-time parliamentarians. The new assembly also includes two women.

The legislative body faces a host of economic challenges and contentious political debates about Kuwait's position in the region. Voters, investors and analysts will also be watching how long the parliament lasts.

Many Kuwaitis had expressed fatigue going into the vote, their second in just eight months. Although the parliament's term is meant to be two years, every assembly since 2006 has been pre-emptively dissolved.

Kuwait was rocked by protests throughout the second half of 2012 over changes made by the Emir to the electoral system last fall, which the opposition had argued would limit their ability to form coalitions.

More broadly however, Kuwait has been locked in a political debate over the respective powers of the legislative and executive authorities. Opposition groups have called for the legalisation of political parties and some have also urged an elected government. The cabinet is currently appointed by the emir, who must also approve legislation before it becomes law.

"One of the most important issues surrounding the elections is whether they will calm, worsen, or essentially maintain Kuwait's unsettled domestic political life," wrote Lori Plotkin Boghardt, fellow in Gulf politics at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.

Political turbulence has held up the vast majority of initiatives in a US$105 billion (Dh386bn) economic development plan announced in 2010. And many Kuwaitis have grown impatient watching local infrastructure stagnate while cities such as Abu Dhabi and Doha undertake vast development projects.

Regional tensions in Syria and Egypt also figured as prominent issues during the election campaign.

The Kuwait government is already facing criticism from some incoming MPs who argue that a recently-announced $4bn aid package for the new government in Cairo is a poor use of public money.

In the immediate term, however, Kuwait may see at least a brief political calm. The new parliament will convene once before the Eid holiday, but will then break before reconvening in the autumn.

edickinson@thenational.ae

* With additional reporting from Reuters and Agence France Presse

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