A Time for Change

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IT’S A MAN’S WORLD: Despite having 14 female candidates, Kuwait’s voters picked one female MP in the newly elected Parliament.

Kuwait’s opposition and newcomers win 24 of 50 parliamentary seats

By Abdullah Alelyan

Kuwait’s November 26 parliamentary elections were by far the most controversial public voting in the country over the past decade, as many Kuwaitis refused to reelect most outgoing members of the Parliament (MPs) who are considered “government deputies.”

Allegations of political money being used to buy votes circulated the few weeks predating the elections up until elections day, with prices ranging from KWD300 ($985) to KWD1,500, per vote, aside from some candidates handing out expensive gifts. However, the Interior Ministry arrested only one person who was accused of buying votes.

Kuwait, which is considered the Arab Gulf states’ only true democracy with an active elected legislation body and a number of political parties, also saw candidates taking to social media, paying thousands of dollars to influencers on the web and in the media to promote them.

Despite the absence of several long-serving MPs from Saturday’s elections, be it by a court order or by will, most opposition figures and groups still took part in this election and won nearly half the seats in the National Assembly, that is 24 out of the 50 contested seats, according to the official result that was announced late Sunday.

However, prominent opposition figures such as Musallem Al Barrak and his political party “Hashd” refused to take part in the elections “to make way for new faces.”

It is worth noting that many of those who won the seats have an affiliation with Muslim Brotherhood-linked groups.

The Muslim Brotherhood is an outlawed movement in Kuwait and most of the Arab Gulf countries, and was accused of plotting for coups and terrorist acts, including in the United Arab Emirates.

Less than 40 percent of the old members of the Parliament were reelected in a process that saw a nearly 70 percent turnout of voters—a sign that government agents were not welcome. Instead, about one-third of the seats are newcomers and young faces, a sign of change in this oil-rich Sheikdom, especially given the fact that most of those who were elected have openly opposed any austerity measures in the country, which is suffering from a prolonged dip in oil prices.

Kuwait’s government had lifted energy subsidies recently and Kuwaitis fear that further austerity measures may cut the benefits they had enjoyed over the past few decades, including free education and healthcare, and interest-free loans, which would impact their livelihood.

Kuwait’s economy is 90 percent reliant on hydrocarbon revenues, and with current oil prices fluctuating at much lower levels than two years ago, the country is threatened with a possible deficit of $31 billion for the fiscal year 2016-2017, according to official forecasts. And the International Monetary Fund expects that Kuwait won’t be out of the deficit zone until at least 2019.

Many of the newly elected MPs have also focused on the issue of the government depriving citizens of their Kuwaiti nationality as a punishment for opposing it, especially after the government recently annulled the nationalities of the Barghash family, including former MP from the Barghash family who is part of the opposition. It also cancelled the nationality of one Islamist preacher, Nabil Al Awadhi, as well as that of Ahmed Al Jaber, owner of an opposition-linked TV channel, and Saad Al Ajami, who is a media figure, and a member of the opposition, among others.

However, members of the 15-strong cabinet, by law, automatically become the non-elected members of the Parliament, hence tilting the balance in favor of the government, though that remains a frail majority, as MPs have the right to question ministers and even rule them out in a vote of confidence.

Cabinet members, as per the constitution, are appointed by the designated prime minister who is, in turn, appointed by the country’s ruler, and the country is expected to see its cabinet formed by the first week of December.

Meanwhile, change in Kuwait this time doesn’t seem to have included women, where despite great efforts by activists to change the norm, only one woman, Safa Al Hashem, out of 14 women candidates, was elected as an MP.

Al Hashem has served as an MP in former parliaments, including the outgoing one.

Knowing that Kuwait only endorsed women’s right to vote and to run for political posts on May 16, 2005, one would expect that Kuwait, with its active political parties and margin of political freedoms, to have an abundant representation of its women in the political arena.

Yet, since 2009, only four Kuwaiti women have managed to reach the parliament through different elections.

Even though Al Hashem was the only woman in the current outgoing Parliament, she had tendered in her resignation last year to register a political stand.

Saturday’s parliamentary elections are the fourth to be held in four years, after the country’s ruler, Sheikh Sabah Al Ahmed Al Sabah, disbanded the Parliament in October and called for November’s elections, citing “security challenges” which he said needed to be addressed via a popular will.

The decision, in part, was also based on the fact that the government sent a letter to Sheikh Sabah alleging a lack of cooperation from the outgoing National Assembly.

The disbanded Parliament was elected back in 2013, and was due to serve until July 2017. Over 290 candidates took part in the elections to fill the 50 seats up for grabs.

According to Kuwait’s constitution, elections in the country are held for the National Assembly whereby the MPs serve a four-year term. However, the elections can be held earlier than the set four years if the Constitutional Court or Emir dissolve the Parliament.

 

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