x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 21 July 2017

Boycott clouds Kuwait elections

Opposition says its plea to Kuwaitis to boycott the vote was extremely effective, with just 28.8 per cent of all eligible Kuwaiti voters casting ballots.

Newly-elected MP Adel Al Khorafi is carried by supporters after the results of the Kuwait elections were announced on Saturday.
Newly-elected MP Adel Al Khorafi is carried by supporters after the results of the Kuwait elections were announced on Saturday.

KUWAIT CITY // Shiites, women and other pro-government candidates have emerged as more potent forces in Kuwait’s parliament following elections at the weekend.

However, there were no signs that the balloting would mend the country’s deeply divided politics.

The official Independent National Electoral Commission announced yesterday that 40.3 per cent of all eligible voters cast ballots on Saturday, down from about 60 per cent in the three previous elections.

The opposition said that its plea to Kuwaitis to boycott the vote was even more effective than the commission’s figure suggested, with just 28.8 per cent of all eligible Kuwaiti voters casting ballots.

As a result of the boycott, the opposition will have no representative in the 50-seat parliament while candidates from the Shiite minority won 17 seats, almost doubling their strength from nine seats in 2009. Women, who did not secure any seats in the February poll, won three on this occasion.

The election results, which the opposition said it would challenge in court, appear to further deepen the divide in Kuwait between pro-government forces heavily represented in parliament and an opposition coalition of tribal, Islamist and youth groups that are weary of politics as usual.

Traditional supporters of the government include urban and merchant Kuwaitis, as well as prominent Shia families, and they fear that political reform would erode their rights and interests.

Opponents are keen for a political system that they say would more adequately reflect Kuwait’s tribal and religious make-up.

The struggle over how – or even whether – the most liberal political system in the Arabian Gulf should change now enters a new phase and the outcome will be watched throughout the region.

Kuwait’s information minister, Sheikh Mohammad Abdullah Al Mubarak Al Sabah, called the election outcome “the foundation for a new start of development and cooperation between the legislative and executive powers to advance Kuwait and all its people”.
The opposition, however, has already vowed to challenge the legitimacy of the new parliament in court and to continue protesting.

“We will not accept the next parliament to legislate or ratify treaties,” a former opposition MP, Faisal Al Muslam, vowed at a pro-boycott rally on Friday. “We fear what the next parliament will do. We think they could undermine the constitution.”

Former opposition MPs and youth activists plan to launch a series of legal cases this week challenging the electoral law and alleging voting irregularities, said Khaled Al Fadhala, a youth activist who helped organise the election boycott.

“We will bring cases to the constitutional court beginning Monday,” he said, adding: “We will also definitely continue in the political scene, with seminars and rallies.”

The immediate cause of Kuwait’s political divisions is a disagreement over the electoral law, which the emir asked the government to amend in October.

The opposition said that the changes, undertaken while parliament was out of session, should be reversed until an elected assembly approves them. But opposition activists and former MPs also said that the issue of the electoral law was just the trigger in a broader struggle over democratic reforms, including the legalisation of political parties and an elected cabinet.

“In the longer term, we are looking for deeper changes to help move forward our democracy,” said former opposition MP Faisal Yahya, at a pro-boycott rally on Friday that drew tens of thousands of Kuwaitis. With the opposition boycott, turnout was particularly controversial in Saturday’s election, as analysts warned that anything below 40 per cent could undermine the parliament’s legitimacy.

The official figure of 40.3 per cent is significantly higher than the opposition’s number, just 28.8 per cent. The People’s Committee for Boycotting Elections, an umbrella of opposition groups led by a tech-savvy youth, said that turnout ranged from a high 48 per cent in Kuwait’s largely urban second district to just 14.8 per cent in the outerlying fifth district, a bastion of opposition support.

Now more conspicuous than ever, the divide in Kuwaiti society is causing consternation across political lines. Political rhetoric has become harsher in recent months, with sect, tribe and socio-economic groups often being singled out by one side or another.

“We think the regime is responsible for these kinds of divisions,” argued former opposition MP Mohammed Al Dalal, citing the media as a key area where rhetoric has sharpened.

“Kuwaitis are peaceful people, but the politicians are trying to divide Shiites, the tribes, the Sunnis, and it’s wrong.”

Meanwhile, many more pro-government groups, such as the Shiite minority, blame the escalating split on the boycotters.

Voters on Saturday said that they feared that an opposition-led government could discriminate against them. “The radicals are working to separate the nation into religions and ethnicities,” said Adnan Al Mutawa, who won a seat in the new parliament.

“The opposition was very difficult to work with in the previous parliament. They left others aside and tried to overtake the government.”

By law, the new parliament must convene within 10 days of Saturday’s vote. Sunni Islamist and tribal candidates have just four seats. Up to 30 of the MPs will be new to office.

Stocks rallied yesterday on the news of the new parliament, signalling that markets expect a more stable economic environment.

“There will be many new faces, but this is a good thing,” said Sahar Al Hamli, a member of the Kuwait Transparency Society’s Commission for Election Transparency.

“They are from new generation, and many are not politicians but professionals.”

edickinson@thenational.ae