x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 27 July 2017

Islamist candidates gain ground in Kuwait

The election result leaves only a minority of the seats in Kuwait's parliament firmly in the hands of pro-government members.

A Kuwaiti opposition candidate celebrates with supporters following his victory in the parliamentary elections.
A Kuwaiti opposition candidate celebrates with supporters following his victory in the parliamentary elections.

KUWAIT // Kuwait's Islamist-led opposition has made significant gains in a snap election, while women did not win a single seat in the country's fourth parliament in six years, according to results announced yesterday.

Riding a wave of frustration at political deadlock and alleged corruption, opposition candidates took as many as 34 of the assembly's 50 seats. The previous parliament was about evenly split between opposition groups and government allies.

Thursday's election gave 14 seats to Islamists and 20 seats to tribal-based legislators - giving conservative-leaning blocs a clear majority. At least nine seats went to liberals and seven to Shiite legislators, who had generally sided with the Sunni-led ruling family.

The election result leaves only a minority of the seats in Kuwait's parliament firmly in the hands of pro-government members.

None of the four women elected to the previous assembly in 2009 kept their seats.

Yesterday's results will give the opposition added strength, even though 15 appointed cabinet ministers, drawn mainly from the ranks of the ruling Al Sabah family, can vote in the parliament, providing a bloc that has typically been used to dilute opposition.

"There's obviously more traction now for the opposition groups. You have kind of a momentum," said Shahin Shamsabadi, an adviser atRisk Advisory Group, a political-risk consultancy that is based in London.

The country's ruler, Sheikh Sabah Al Ahmad Al Sabah, called the vote in December after dissolving the chamber in response to a political deadlock that has stymied reform and delayed development projects.

The opposition had been expected to expand its influence after its success in ousting the unpopular former prime minister Sheikh Nasser Al Mohammed Al Sabah, whom it accused of corruption. That anger came to a head in November when protesters led by opposition MPs stormed the assembly demanding that Sheikh Nasser resign. Soon after, the emir dismissed his cabinet - the seventh line-up in six years.

An investigation by the public prosecutor into large deposits in the bank accounts of 13 pro-government parliamentarians gave a further boost to the opposition. Regime critics said the sums were bribes paid by ministers to MPs for their backing in the assembly.

The opposition is not a unified force in Kuwait, where a ban on political parties makes tribal and sectarian loyalties the easiest and most effective way of mobilising support.

It is unclear how far the Islamists can push their agenda, which includes trying to make Islamic law the basis for all legal codes and challenging perceived un-Islamic events such as women's sports competitions and public dancing.

Some hard-liners also have questioned Kuwait's close ties with the US military, which has more than 20,000 troops in Kuwait and seeks to make the country its main site for American ground forces after their planned withdrawal from Iraq in December. Kuwait played a crucial role as the staging area for the US-led invasion of Iraq in 2003.

This week's voter turnout was 62 per cent, up from 58 per cent in the previous election in 2009.

"The situation cannot remain as it was," the opposition candidate Faisel Al Mislem told hundreds of supporters at a campaign event in the run-up to the vote. "If this election is just a game of musical chairs, then it's a waste of time."

* With additional reporting by Associated Press