The results of Kuwait's national assembly elections on May 16 came as a surprise. For the first time since being granted suffrage in 2005, women were able to win four seats in the 50-member assembly, while the share of Islamists (Muslim Brotherhood and Salafists) waned, as did that of organized political movements at large in favor of liberal-leaning independent MPs. Shi’a, who comprise about 25 percent of Kuwait's population, were also able to expand their influence in parliament, picking up nine seats as compared to five in the previous assembly. Overall, 40 percent of the assembly members are new.
Despite the change in the assembly brought about by Kuwaiti voters and the optimistic note sounded by the election of women, a genuine transformation is not at hand. The future of the parliament and of democracy in Kuwait will still rely more on the makeup of the new government and its ability to put forward an economic program that can rescue the country from its stalled development path, as well as on the prime minister's willingness to be subjected to parliamentary questioning should MPs resort to this measure as they have in the past.
One historic aspect of the new National Assembly is the election of four women. One of them, Massouma al-Mubarak, took the top slot in her district, while another, Aseel al-Awadi, came in second in hers, outperforming veteran politician and former national assembly speaker Ahmed al-Saadoun by 891 votes. Although Rola Dashti only took seventh place (following two failed attempts in previous elections), she still came in ahead of prominent Islamist politician Walid al-Tabtabai.
The victory of Dashti, a liberal Shi’i in a Sunni-majority district, and al-Mubarak, a Shi’i who received heavy Sunni support, suggests an unexpected transformation in Kuwaiti society. Although sectarian divisions between Shi’a and Sunna had some impact on voters’ choices, their importance has declined among younger urban voters. The religious pretexts employed by Islamists in preventing women from reaching parliament also appeared to fall on deaf ears;two of the four women elected do not wear the hijab (headscarf). Overall, voters seemed frustrated and ready to give women a chance for change.
The other notable change in the assembly is the declining popularity of organized political movements in general, especially Islamist ones. The Islamic Constitutional Movement (known by its Arabic acronym, Hadas) fell from three seats to a single seat, with only Jaaman al-Harbash reelected with support that was more tribal than ideological. The Salafist Movement’s share dropped from four seats to two, and the National Islamic Alliance (Shi’i) fell from two seats to one. The backlash against political organizations affected not only Islamists, but liberals as well, with the Kuwait Democratic Forum and National Democratic Alliance each dropping down to only a single seat. Although the idea of officially legalizing political parties is currently being discussed as a step towards further political liberalization, the victory of a significant number of independents—though some do have ideological loyalties—suggests that the popular mood in Kuwait might not be ready for such a move.
Despite the change brought about by the election results, this does not rule out the possibility that the assembly could be dissolved before it completes its session in 2013. Although there was 40 percent turnover in the assembly members, underlying factors remain that could create tension between parliament and the government. First, the new assembly includes some MPs who have insisted on questioning the prime minister, which since 2006 has led to the government stepping down five times and the national assembly being dissolved three times. No fewer than four of what the pro-government media label “the trouble-making MPs,” who use their constitutional right to question the prime minister, were reelected, showing that these MPs have substantial electoral support. Parliamentary questioning may be delayed for a short time, but will not disappear as a feature of Kuwaiti democratic practice.
Second, Sheikh Nasser al-Mohammed al-Sabah will once again head the cabinet, as he has done since 2006. Sheikh Nasser became prime minister after Crown Prince Sheikh Nawaf al-Ahmed stepped down from the position, and after objections were raised against Defense Minister Sheikh Jaber al-Mubarak as a possible alternative. Although Sheikh's Nasser's popularity has risen since he returned from a recuperative trip abroad, parliamentary questioning could still start up again as a result of the way he runs his government.
As for the new cabinet announced on May 29, 40 percent of its members are different from the previous one. This will help a bit to ease tensions with parliament. Despite the lower number of women in the new government (down to one, compared with two in the previous government) and an increase in the number of ministers from the ruling family, the introduction of seven new ministers has generated some optimism in public opinion. Although the quota system was applied to guarantee proportional representation of various tribes and ideological persuasions, many of the new ministers are professionals with expertise in their respective fields. Thus the cabinet is viewed as more technocratic in nature. But regardless of the temporary optimism, tension will continue to plague relations between the two branches as long as the government does not come forth with a comprehensive economic development plan.
Given these factors, the government will have no option but to take advantage of the new assembly's makeup—with which the political leadership overall is quite pleased—by proposing a comprehensive program to jumpstart Kuwait's stagnant economic development. Perhaps the presence of liberal-leaning, more pro-government MPs can strengthen cooperation between the two branches, and help make a push towards the Kuwaiti dream of transforming the country into a global financial center. But there is also now a preponderance of opinion, within both the state and society, that parliamentary questioning of government officials is proper. Therefore the possibility that MPs will resume their efforts to pin down the prime minister, and that the parliament will be dissolved again, possibly unconstitutionally, continues to loom on the horizon.
Hesham al-Awadi is a professor of international studies and director of the Gulf Studies Center at the American University in Kuwait. Paul Wulfsberg translated this article from Arabic.