x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 23 July 2017

Kuwait rejects election law change

The ruling is likely to embolden opposition forces in the country, who had accused the ruling family of trying to gerrymander voting lines in their favour before calling new elections, now likely to be held around the New Year.

Kuwaiti protesters watch pro-opposition speakers on screens during a Kuwait City rally ahead of a court decision on an electoral law they fear could weaken the chances of opposition candidates in the next parliamentary vote.
Kuwaiti protesters watch pro-opposition speakers on screens during a Kuwait City rally ahead of a court decision on an electoral law they fear could weaken the chances of opposition candidates in the next parliamentary vote.

Kuwait's highest court yesterday struck down a government challenge to the country's electoral districts, deciding to leave the current five zones intact.

The ruling is likely to embolden opposition forces in the country, who had accused the ruling family of trying to gerrymander voting lines in their favour before calling new elections, now likely to be held around the New Year.

Acrimony between the ruling family and an increasingly assertive parliament have deadlocked the country's politics and development plan in recent years, despite record budget surpluses.

"The verdict may in the end mean that the country will go into further political conflict," said Shafeeq Ghabra, former president of the American University in Kuwait.

Opposition Islamist and tribal political blocs have gained ground among Kuwait's voters for the past half decade. The country has universal suffrage for all citizens over the age of 21. Emboldened by changes across the region and a youth protest movement, opposition candidates captured their first outright majority in February.

While in session, the assembly had sharply criticised the ruling family and called for greater democratic reform. But in June, the 2012 parliament was dissolved on a legal technicality. Before calling new elections, the government asked the constitutional court to examine an electoral law that drew Kuwait into five districts in 2006, allowing opposition factions to gain strength.

The court case had mobilised the opposition and leaders held rallies for several weeks before the expected verdicts. In addition to decrying the districting challenge, they called for reforms, such as the introduction of parties and an elected cabinet, which would take Kuwait just shy of constitutional monarchy.

Among the major complaints of the opposition is what they claim is widespread corruption and economic stagnation.

On Monday, thousands of demonstrators gathered in Kuwait City's Irada Square after the former parliamentary speaker, Ahmed Al Sadoun, using his Arabic Twitter feed, urged demonstrators to stand for the "eradication of corruption" and against those who are "hostile to the constitutional system".

But pro-government MPs have argued that the opposition failed to deliver during its brief time in the parliamentary majority this year.

"They did not give much importance to laws to fight corruption but concentrated on the laws that divided the society, such as the blasphemy law that allowed for execution of anyone who insulted the Prophet and his companions," a former MP, Saleh Ashour, told the local daily newspaper Arab Times this week.

Tensions ran high yesterday morning and security forces cordoned off the courtroom where the ruling took place.

Opposition MPs welcomed the ruling and said that the cabinet should now immediately resign to set the stage for a new parliamentary vote.

Kuwait's increasingly vocal youth movements, a major force in street protests over the past two years, also claimed victory and called for further liberalisation. They want an independent electoral body to be created before new voting is held.

"There are a lot of changes happening at the level of youth, who want a more stable, neutral state in Kuwait." said Mr Ghabra.

"They overlap with the opposition but they differ from the opposition, because they are taking the long view."

edickinson@thenational.ae