Kuwait’s parliamentary elections of Feb. 2 were held under exceptional circumstances. For the fourth time in six years, the government organized early elections (previous ones were held in 2006, 2008, and 2009). This came after vicious political infighting among parliamentarians, and between Parliament and the government (particularly the former prime minister), prevented previous legislatures from completing their four-year terms.
Dissolution of Parliament is no novelty in Kuwait: The Constitution grants the emir power to dissolve the legislature and, since the 1960s, more than half of all Parliaments have not finished their mandates. But while previous dissolutions resulted from showdowns between the government and parliamentarians, this most recent election was a result of popular demands to disband both Parliament and the government – and return to the polls.
This popular movement, which was very successful in rallying against the former prime minister’s agenda, preceded the Arab Spring. The ceiling for its demands is still within constitutional limits. But youth groups have arrived, and their vision for Kuwait goes beyond the traditional proposals of Kuwait’s established political organizations.
Activism has been spurred mainly by an outcry against financial and political corruption – especially after local banks reported the deposit of millions of dollars into the accounts of 13 (of 50) deputies. These deputies were referred to prosecution for a money laundering investigation. Although the investigation is still ongoing, the issue has turned into a political trial. The majority of the 13 deputies did not run in February’s elections, and those who did lost in their races. Only two of the 13 were re-elected.
The elections strengthened the hand of politicians who tend to oppose the government. Although they refer to themselves as “the opposition,” this is a misnomer: The various factions (political parties are illegal) do not share a common platform beyond opposition to the former prime minister. In fact, the new Parliament might be less able to put forth unified positions. It is more polarized than previous ones because many successful candidates ran on factional and sectarian platforms – riding the wave of sectarian tension generated by regional events (particularly in Bahrain and, to a lesser extent, Syria). Liberal parliamentarians did not do well but managed to keep five seats.
Islamist parties fared better than in previous races. The Muslim Brotherhood, represented by its political organization Hadas, won five seats (four more than in the previous Parliament). The Salafist Bloc, the main Salafist party, took five seats. The Shiite-led Islamic National Alliance Party gained another two seats.
Contrary to what some observers have argued, however, the Islamists’ good showing in Kuwait was not an extension of the Islamist victories in Egypt and Tunisia. Kuwaiti Islamists have been politically active in parliamentary elections since 1981, and their electoral performances have fluctuated, rather than reflecting a steady presence. For example, the Muslim Brotherhood won six seats in 2003, three in 2006, two in 2008, one in 2009, and now five in 2012.
Women were arguably the biggest loser in the elections. They not only failed to win a single seat, when the previous parliament included four female deputies, not a single female was appointed minister, unlike every other government formed since women’s suffrage in 2005.
Perhaps it was the government’s formation that followed the elections that revealed the more interesting developments in Kuwait’s political climate. Several traditional assumptions that had governed the government-formation process have been relinquished, most notably the flexibility enjoyed by the prime minister in appointing ministers.
Sheikh Jaber al-Mubarak, who was appointed prime minister in December following a public outcry against his predecessor, is constrained on many fronts. Dissent within the ruling family abounds, and Sheikh Jaber feels threatened by several of his cousins – namely, the former prime minister and the former deputy prime minister – who seem to be attempting to force him out.
In addition, increasing pressures from Parliament characterized the government-formation process from beginning to end. A number of parliamentarians took the opportunity to float fairly radical proposals. Some suggested that someone from outside the ruling family be appointed to the crucial posts of interior minister and first deputy to the prime minister. The opposition groupings in Parliament also demanded nine ministerial posts (out of 16), which led to the breakdown of talks. The prime minister rejected all these proposals and swiftly appointed a Cabinet composed of technocrats.
What does the current technocratic government mean for the expected life span of this Parliament? The Cabinet is less political than its predecessors, allowing more room for negotiations with Parliament – rather than open confrontation. Its stance on the election for speaker of Parliament (in Kuwait, the speaker is elected by parliamentarians as well as Cabinet members) was a sign in this direction. The election was held in a charged atmosphere as Ahmad al-Saadoun, a former speaker and long-time opposition parliamentarian, faced off against liberal independent MP Mohammad Jassim al-Saqer. The government did not force its ministers to vote as a single bloc, allowing Saadoun to finally retake the speakership he lost in 1999 to government candidate Jasim al-Khurafi.
Ultimately, all depends on whether or not the government hastens initiatives that address Parliament’s demands. Initial signs are promising, including the creation of an anti-corruption watchdog and an independent electoral commission. It would be wise to continue in this vein, and Parliament will certainly hold the government to it – as will the emboldened youth movement that played such a prominent role in jumpstarting Kuwait’s political process.
Ghanim Alnajjar is a professor of political science at Kuwait University. This commentary, which is translated from the Arabic, first appeared at Sada, an online journal published by the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.