x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 28 July 2017

Elections in Kuwait raise real prospect of reforms

Opposition in Kuwait pushing for greater democracy and Islamists' shifting stance leaves liberals with a dilemma as they face prospect of minority rol.

Kuwaiti MPs attend a parliament session at the national assembly in Kuwiat city on May 23,2012.
Kuwaiti MPs attend a parliament session at the national assembly in Kuwiat city on May 23,2012.

KUWAIT CITY // Kuwait's Islamist opposition forces have united to push the country toward more representative democracy, believing they can capture a convincing majority in the upcoming parliamentary elections.

The calls for democratic reform, a major shift for the traditionally pro-government Islamists, have reconfigured Kuwaiti politics.

Liberal candidates who led previous calls for democracy are now torn over how to proceed, realising that they would likely be a minority in a truly elected government.

"Twenty years ago, it was these liberals who pushed for democracy," says Abdullah Shayji, the head of the political science department at Kuwait University. "Now the whole structure has really shifted."

The more conservative Islamist groups are also questioning their positions on a range of measures they once opposed on religious grounds, such as political parties and public protests.

Consider the last parliament's vice-speaker, Khaled Al Sultan Ben Essa, who might seem an unlikely democrat. His Islamic Salafi Alliance has denounced political parties and protests - but he is one of the most vocal critics of the ruling family, who he accuses of "suppressing the will of the people".

Putting aside individual concerns, a loose coalition of Islamists calling itself simply "the majority" has demanded a popularly elected council of ministers, the ability for parliament to recall the prime minister, the legalisation of parties, and electoral and judicial reforms.

"We are trying to write a new history for Kuwait so that the nation can lead itself," said the former parliamentarian Mohammed Dalal after announcing the coalition platform on July 16.

The shifting sands come as Kuwait expects to hold parliamentary elections after Ramadan.

On June 20, a constitutional court disbanded the previous, Islamist-dominated national assembly citing a technical error in the conduct of elections in February. The court ordered the previous parliament to hold session, which it may do on July 31. But opposition and youth activists have promised to protest and most observers expect the emir to call for fresh elections.

The stakes for winning a majority in the poll, expected in October or November, are high. For decades, Kuwait's political system has teetered between monarchy and parliamentary rule, with neither camp holding enough power to rule without the consent of the other.

But the Islamists' meteoric rise caps a series of political crises that shifted the balance of power resolutely in the parliament's favour.

Half a decade ago, Kuwait's youth movement organised itself to demand changes to the electoral law that would give a greater proportion of votes to non-urban areas, generally more conservative districts. Since the changes came into effect, Islamists have garnered an increasing share of parliamentary seats.

The Arab Spring further raised the bar for popular representation in government, argues Shafeeq Ghabra, a political analyst and former president of American University in Kuwait.

And just as a new spirit of political engagement was taking shape in 2009, the prime minister, Sheikh Nasser Al Mohammad Al Sabah, was accused of bribing members of parliament for political gain. Activists, young and old, took to the streets, eventually storming the parliament in November 2011. The prime minister was forced to resign.

In the parliamentary elections that followed in February, many voters turned toward a rising cadre of new and often more conservative candidates who spoke out forcefully against graft.

"[Many] were voted in based on their Islamic values," said Lindsey Stephenson, a former Fulbright researcher in Kuwait who studied political activism. "In people's minds it means they are moral, they are not going to be corrupt, they are going to be more fair."

The new coalition controlled 35 of the 50 seats in parliament - a majority it used to plan sweeping legislative change that appalled many traditional liberals. In early May, for example, the parliament endorsed a law that would implement the death penalty for blasphemy. It never took effect because it wasn't approved by Kuwait's ruler.

Many in the new parliament also began investigating past corruption scandals, said Mr Ben Essa. "We had set up investigation committees to get to the facts of the embezzlement of funds," he added.

The more the new parliament was upsetting the old order, Liberals - many of whom had been among the economic and political elite for decades - suddenly found themselves clinging to it, said Mr Ghabra.

With another election coming, these changing dynamics have infused all of Kuwait's political players with a sense of urgency to control the momentum of change.

The new, Islamist coalition is keen to enable the parliament it seems likely to dominate. The various Islamist candidates have also worked to bring the diverse assortment of political views under their umbrella. The 35 ex-MPs who signed on to the calls for democratic reform did so only after reassurances that they would not be bound to parts of the agreement that they personally did not agree with, said Mr Ben Essa, whose Salafi alliance still objects to political parties.

Meanwhile, rumours circulate that the ruling family could seize upon the disbanded parliament to amend the electoral system in a way that might bring back a more pro-government parliament. Opposition MPs, as well as a powerful youth movement, have vowed to take to the streets to prevent this.

Even after the elections, however, any serious reforms will likely take months to formulate. This will be the sixth parliament that Kuwait has elected in as many years.

There are fears that it won't just be Kuwait's political system that stagnates. Parliament approves budgets, meaning the country's development plan, which includes massive infrastructure projects such as an upgraded airport and port, is vulnerable to political swings.

On July 19, shares in the National Bank of Kuwait dropped 5.7 per cent in a day, a loss the bank blamed on political turmoil that had stalled development projects. "To have development, we need political stability," says Salman Sabah Al Salen Al Hmoud Al Sabah, undersecretary of the ministry of information.

 

foreign.desk@thenational.ae