x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 24 January 2018

Musical chairs in Kuwait's elections, but the tune is the same

Kuwait's brand of politics may look messy, but at least it's not violent. Why? When you can say what you want there is no reason to stand in the streets and shout.

To the untrained eye, most candidates in last week's Kuwaiti elections walked the same, talked the same and offered little variation on identical platforms that promised economic development, governmental transparency and a better future.

And while some have argued that it was the Arab Spring that rushed the country into early elections, the fourth in six years, the evidence is to the contrary. True, the dissolution of the 2009 National Assembly, two years into its four-year term, came after a November protest that saw Kuwaitis storm parliament, an event that resembled protests elsewhere. But the collapse of the cabinet was because of a long-simmering political crisis inside parliament, rather than outside factors.

Change in Kuwait is political instead of fundamental, which in turn made last week's poll a repeat of other elections: a mix of politicking, electioneering and jockeying for power with little or no connection to the winds of change sweeping other countries in the region.

But political change did come to some degree. Only 22 incumbents in the 50-member National Assembly were re-elected, with the four female lawmakers losing the seats they had won in 2009.

Many suggest that the 28 new legislators will give an advantage to the anti-government, mainly Islamist bloc, which now controls more than half the seats. According to the Kuwaiti constitution, however, a 16-member cabinet will be appointed (at least one minister must be an elected MP). The other 15 members can also vote in parliament, giving the cabinet a decisive edge.

Also, beyond the Islamist versus non-Islamist dichotomy, the various campaigns suggested that there are many other layers of different divisions inside parliament and across Kuwait.

For a start, at least one of the new lawmakers is known for fiery rhetoric and distinguishing between "sedentary Kuwaitis" and Bedouins. The argument goes that parliament must restore urban values, as opposed to those held by rural groups (even if Bedouins have been residing in cities for generations).

Meanwhile, the Shia bloc, at times singled out on suspicion of harbouring non-Kuwaiti loyalties, has clearly shrunk in the Assembly. Talk about a "fifth column" that endorses a foreign agenda should recede.

Finally, as the number of opposition MPs - Islamist, Shia and liberal - increases, the new opposition will have to redefine itself after the departure of many old politicians, such as the former prime minister Sheikh Nasser Al Sabah, who has formed several cabinets over the past decade. The position of speaker is also up for grabs with the retirement of Jasem Al Kharafi.

With 28 new MPs, more Islamists, fewer Shiites, no women and a new speaker, the shape of the new government is anybody's guess, with most analysts predicting incumbent Prime Minister Sheikh Jaber Al Sabah to form the new cabinet.

Since Sheikh Jaber formed his first cabinet in December, political tension has noticeably receded. His cabinet has pushed economic growth by expanding the federal budget from $71 billion to $79 billion (Dh290 billion).

The cabinet also did an impressive job organising the elections. Foreign observers reported a free and fair electoral process, and the televised count of votes showed that it was transparent.

Whether that means Sheikh Jaber will win favour with the new parliament remains to be seen. And even if he does gain the approval of the opposition, there are few indications that Kuwait's political scene will shift away from the bickering it has witnessed over the past decade.

Troublemaking in parliament remains the trend. Even if cabinets demonstrate solid performance coupled with transparency and respect for the rule of law, we can still expect some lawmakers to show their tempers.

With Kuwait's GDP per capita among the highest in the world, and with a free press and stability, there seem to be few complaints for the opposition to fight for. Stability and prosperity will always narrow political differences, even if not eliminate them altogether.

"In Kuwait, we've been having the Arab Spring for many years now," a Kuwaiti friend told me. "Only it is not violent or brutal because when you can say what you want, there is no reason why we should stand in the streets and shout."


Hussain Abdul-Hussain is the Washington bureau chief of the Kuwaiti newspaper Alrai