International American Council

International American Council
Middle East and North Africa

Some shifts in Kuwait’s new parliament

After Kuwait’s Constitutional Court, in conjunction with emir Sabah al-Ahmad al-Sabah voted to dissolve the current National Assembly this month after challenges to the current regime from the country’s opposition, new elections were called, and some of the members of the opposition seem to have gotten their way, even if they did not get the revised voting system they originally demanded from the Constitutional Court.

Although the pro-Western parties that have historically aligned with the Kuwaiti ruling family proved ultimately to get the greatest number of votes, as the opposition claimed they would in its plea to the Constitutional Court to change the voting system from Sabah’s newly implemented system, other groups did make gains where they had not before. 

One issue with Kuwait’s opposition, and perhaps the reason why they have not been as successful as they might have been in pushing reforms, is that it is highly polarized, between conservative tribal Islamists on the one hand and liberal social reformists on the other. Neither is completely happy with the Sabah regime—the Islamists dislike Kuwait’s close relationship with Western countries, which many see as pandering to powerful allies, and the liberals dislike the Sabah family’s suppression of free speech.

This lack of coordination between factions of the opposition is likely why they have not triumphed, despite discontent towards the Kuwaiti government being widespread among the populace. Recently, Sabah changed the voting system rules from a multiple non-transferable voting system (MNTV), which allowed for each citizen to vote four times for up to four different candidates, to a FPTP system. The opposition objected to this change, because the simple plurality FPTP system makes it difficult for alliances to form, especially because political parties are not permitted. However, the Constitutional Court elected to respect the change, and so oppositional groups were confined by a less flexible voting system.

It is somewhat surprising then, that the opposition was able to make as many gains as it did, considering Sabah seemed to do whatever he could to make gains more difficult. The gains despite a confining voting system speak to the deepening popularity of different opposition groups in Kuwait, and perhaps a greater regional trend for Islamist groups in particular to speak out against pro-Western ruling regimes and make democratically elected gains. The United Arab Emirates, in particular, is watching the situation with the Kuwaiti Islamists closely, as many of them are linked with the anti-Persian Gulf emirates Muslim Brotherhood. 

However, these gains for the opposition might not be a purely bad thing for Sabah and his ruling regime. Kristian Ulrichsen, a Persian Gulf expert for the Baker Institute for Public Policy notes, “The large number of new MPs gives hope that a National Assembly with greater popular backing can find a way of improving relations with the government.” In other words an institutionalized opposition may help citizens express dissatisfaction with the government in a peaceful way, rather than resorting to the heavy protests that have been plaguing much of the rest of the region.

By Laura Gates

Source: The Associated Press, Reuters, Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance

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