Parliamentary elections –the 18th in the Kuwaiti political history and the 6th in 10 years – were held in Kuwait on 29 September, after a period of stagnation that hindered the political life in the country as a result of disagreement between the government and parliament, which necessitated coushening the crisis -according to the country’s conventional method- by the dissolution of parliament and holding early elections within a 2-month period, according to the constitution.
The political process in the country has reached an impasse and escalation when 16 parliament members staged an open-ended sit-in at the parliament complex, supported by a number of politicians, political groups as well as civil society organizations. Crown Prince Sheikh Meshal al-Ahmad al-Sabah had no choice but to dissolve the parliament on 2 August and called for early elections.
On election day, 796,000 voters headed to the polling stations to vote by the single non-transferable vote system in 759 stations and 123 schools, divided to five 10-seat constituencies. About 50 percent of eligible voters turned out at polling stations.
The parliamentary elections in Kuwait have been held in politically unstable conditions; however, they were more transparent than ever, under government measures aimed to ensure integrity and prevent vote buying, which can be explained as follows:
Political Standoff: Early elections were held as a result of parliament dissolution declaration on 15 June, by the Emir Sheikh Nawaf Al-Ahmad Al-Jaber Al-Sabah, following political disagreement between the elected legislature and the government of Sheikh Sabah Al-Khalid Al-Sabah. Disagreement that led to cabinet resignation on 5 April, as political situation came to deadlock after accusations of corruption and misconduct from the MPs to the cabinet members, who accused back the MPs of misusing their powers of Interpellation.
The crisis resulted in hampering economic reforms due to standoff between the two institutions, which delayed the approval of a state budget for the fiscal year 2022/2023. The budget -which has to be voted on before November- had set spending at 23.65 billion dinars ($77.2 billion) compared to 23.48 billion for the 2021/2022 budget. It should be mentioned that holding early legislative elections caused by dissolution of an existing government due to disagreement between elected MPs and appointed cabinet, is a usual procedure in the Kuwaiti politics. Parliament had previously been dissolved 6 times under the late Emir Sabah Al-Ahmed Al-Jaber Al-Sabah, the last was in 2016. This year’s dissolution is the first under Emir Nawaf Al-Ahmed Al-Jaber Al-Sabah.
Elevated Participation Rate: These elections witnessed a high participations rate as many of the candidates who refrained from running in the previous elections decided to participate in this year’s elections.
Some 305 candidates, including 22 women, competed. Several opposition groups and individuals who have been outside the electoral race for the past 10 years for allegedly accusing the executive authority of interfering in parliament duties, have ended their boycott of the electoral process in response to the Crown Prince’s vows not to interfere in the elections of the new parliament. He reassured his commitment through the official announcement of the Emir decree of parliament dissolution this August. He stated: “We are not going to interfere with people’s selection of their representatives, nor in members of the coming parliament’s selection of their speaker and committees”. He also assured that the parliament will freely make its own decisions, and he will not support a specific faction over the others, as he will keep an equal distance from all.
These elections come after the Emir Nawaf Al-Sabah has issued 2 decrees in November, 2021, declaring amnesty for 35 political opponents and reducing their sentences. Those have been convicted of breaking into the parliament complex during 2011 protests. In addition, 13 members of Al-Abdaly group, who had been convicted of spying for Iran and Hezbollah and conspiring against the state, have been released. Moreover, a number of prominent opposition figures who were exiled in Turkey returned home, which encouraged opposition to participate in the elections.
New Measures to Prevent Election Manipulation: The Kuwaiti government has adopted policies that aim to achieve voting neutrality and prevent manipulation. One of these measures was banning tribal primary elections which aim to elect a candidate to represent a tribe, a clan, a religious group, or a faction of the society in order to strengthen their chances of winning the official elections. Those sectarian and tribal loyalties have -over years- weakened the parliament capabilities of carrying out reforms and facing economic and social challenges.
As a result, the authorities have imposed strict measures against those actions, including security and legal constraints on those who harbor primary elections in their residences. This forced them to reject candidates’ requests to hold such tribal by-elections, and return registration fees they have previously collected from them, in addition to arresting individuals who have participated in such primary elections and get them prosecuted by the attorney general. Moreover, two candidates who won in primary elections have been imprisoned. However, Tribal, sectarian and family factors remained governing the electoral behavior in general, without paying attention to agendas. Twenty-two tribal candidates won seats, down from 29 in the previous elections.
Measures also included intensifying authentication formalities through a couple of steps. In previous elections, certificate of citizenship and rental agreement (as a proof of residency) were required for candidate registration. Recently, the Ministries of Justice and Interior requested a citizenship certificate and a national ID for the first time in 60 years, as not having a national ID and presenting a forged rental agreement in the past allowed registration outside their constituencies, which represented a gap used by some politicians to strengthen their winning chances through mobilizing voters into their wards. The government also adopted strict measures to prevent vote buying through applying single non-transferable vote system, while in previous elections; each voter had 4 ballots, which caused the opposition to boycott the 2012 elections.
The Government’s Response to Some Opposition Demands: Elections were held in an atmosphere of political contentment with Sheikh Ahmed Nawaf Al-Sabah government’s performance, as it has responded positively to opposition demands, and took measures to improve government work and confront corruption and bureaucracy. Nawaf paid non-prearranged visits to governmental offices to inspect how services are being offered to the public. He also has replaced some high-ranking officials, steps that have reflected on election campaigns where some opposition members expressed their agreement with his way of work, and have reduced their criticism which used to be the cause of political problems.
Dominance of Individual Agendas: Independent candidates have designed their campaigns according to their voters’ demands and the problems they face inside their wards. Demands included fighting corruption, improving public services, finding solutions for housing and unemployment problems that are connected to expats, supporting private sector, as well as making a law of amnesty for those who have been convicted inside or outside Kuwait for their political actions and opinions. Those demands have been presented without organizing between candidates, or even integrated agendas. They have even proposed different ways for tackling problems. The exception was the 5-group led by Hassan Gohar, which existed in the previous parliament and played an important role within opposition front, they ran for these elections under a unified agenda. In addition, the Islamic Constitutional Movement, which is the Muslim Brotherhood branch in Kuwait, who have issued a unified agenda called the Doctrine of Morality, the core of which is that they are going to endorse conservative orientations such as fighting unethical behaviors within the society and raising Islamic laws. This agenda has created a domestic controversy between those who believe it is a crucial step to protect the society, and others who consider it as an attempt to impose particular morals. Those who oppose this agenda launched a hash tag calling it the Kandahar Declaration.
Reading into the Results
The elections resulted in changing the parliament structure by 54 percent compared to 2020 parliament. The new assembly includes 27 new members, out of which 15 who do not have previous legislative experience, which indicates the people’s discontent with the old faces who went into political conflicts with the government over corruption accusations. It also indicated their will to break the stagnation, achieve political stability and put an end for tensions between executive and legislative institutions in order to go forward with economic reforms.
The results also indicate the capability of Kuwaitis to use elections as a tool for change. Results can be read as follows:
Dominance of Opposition: The opposition harvested 30 seats out of 50, that’s 60 percent of the structure, while 20 members of the previous parliament have lost their seats, among them most of the government loyalist members, who had taken ministerial positions in the previous government; those are: Hamad Roheldin Alkandari (Minister of Media and Culture), Mubarak El-Aro (Minister of Social Affairs and Community Development), and Mohamed Ebeid El-Raghey (State Minister of Parliament Relations).
Also observed was the winning of experienced MP Ahmed Saadoun (87 years) with the highest number of votes in the third jurisdiction (12,239 votes), which made him a proposed candidate for the speaker position, the position which he previously filled in 1985, 1992, 1996, and 2012. The previous speaker Marzouk El-Ghanem refrained from running in these most recent elections. Also the 5-group which worked as opposition in the previous parliament, has won with a considerable number of votes within their wards, they are: Hassan Gohar, Abdallah Al-Madf, Badr El-Mullah, Mohallal Al-Madf, and Muhanad Al-Sayer.
Female Presence: Women are back to the parliament of Kuwait after a 2-year absence. The writer and intellectual Aliaa Al-Khaled (48 years) has collected 2,365 votes in the second jurisdiction, and the former minister Jenan Bushahri (48 years) has garnered 4,321 votes in the third jurisdiction, without quota. In the previous parliament, the only female lost her seat in the 2020 elections. Despite the small number of female candidates (22), the ratio of female winners to candidates is 10 percent which is close to the male ratio of 15 percent.
The Rise of Shiite Representation: Spreading over multiple jurisdictions and political groups, Shiites raised their seats to 9 against 7 in the previous elections. The National Islamic Coalition succeeded in taking 3 seats out of 4 candidates. Also the Justice and Peace Affiliation took 2 seats, in addition to the independent winning candidates, the total number of the Shiite representatives comes to 9: Hassan Gohar, Osama Al-Zeid, Ahmed Lari, Saleh Ashour, Khalil Al-Saleh, Shoaib Ali Shabaan, Jenan Bushahri, Khalil Abel and Hani Shams.
One Fifth of the Members are Islamists: Islamists all together (Salafis, Muslim Brotherhood and Independent) took 10 seats, keeping their share from last elections. The Islamic Constitutional Movement ICM kept its 3 members: Osama Al-Shaheen, Hamad El-Matar and Abdel Aziz Al-Saqbi. The Salafi Islamic Affiliation made a notable success as its candidate Mohamed Hayeff is back to the parliament after losing his seat in the previous elections, added to the winning of Adel El-Damkhi, Fahd El-Masoud, Hamad El-Obeid and Mubarak El-Tasha which returned the affiliation to the parliament with 5 representatives after absence since 2016. Moreover, 2 independent candidates who are related to the Muslim Brotherhood won seats Falah Dahi and Abdallah Fhad.
The increased number of Islamists raises fears from retreat of social reforms and women’s rights and freedoms, as they (Islamist MPs) have signed the Doctrine of Morality declaration which calls for separation of boys and girls in schools and banning mixed dance parties.
The Winning of Two Imprisoned Candidates: Th elections witnessed an unprecedented circumstance, as two candidates (Marzouk Al-Khalifa and Hemeid Al-Bathali) won seats while serving in prison for being convicted of participating in illegal primary elections, which raised a legal controversy about the legitimacy of their parliament membership. As for illegibility, they are illegible for running for parliamentary elections, as their case is not related to “honesty” or “honor”.
Those who are convicted of an honesty or honor-related crime or convicted of being disrespectful to God, the prophets, the prophet companions or the Emir, are not illegible for candidacy, which is not the case of these two individuals. As for their legal situation in terms of granting them parliamentary immunity, legal experts agreed that legislative practices of the new parliament in dealing with such a case are going to be unprecedented, as there is no clear legal provision to deal with it.
Finally: The new House of Representatives will have to face a number of crucial issues, such as corruption, population structure, education development, unemployment, housing, amnesty for prisoners of conscience as well as amending freedom restricting laws. Those have been subjects of disagreement between the previous parliament and government. Consensus between executive and legislative authorities is needed to achieve progress in those subjects.
However, political circles have low expectations about the capability of the new parliament of breaking the political deadlock, as it is dominated by opposition and Islamic streams, hence, high potential of confrontation with the government which does not have sufficient political support, and will be subject to interpellation, especially that the opposition may pursue passing of amendments that are not welcome by the government such as abolition of deprivation law, cyber crimes law and the “Bedoun” (without) law. This makes the government’s ability to pass crucial economic reforms (such as VAT), doubtful.
In addition, there are suspicions about the process of electing a speaker for the house, which was an issue of disagreement in the previous parliament of 2020, when 37 MPs announced their intention to vote for the opponent of Marzouk Al-Ghanem, while Al-Ghanem still won the position through secret voting, which raised accusations of governmental interference. This conflict may take place once again despite the expectations of winning the position by Ahmed Saadoun, which is a potential issue of tension with the government over the coming period.