Kuwait’s Elections: Sectarianism, Tribalism - and Change

Article Summary
As Kuwaitis vote in a new National Assembly, Denise Yammine analyzes how sectarian and tribal dynamics are likely to shape the results. She also explains the background of this year’s election, which takes place on the heels of a large scale corruption scandal.

Kuwait may be the Arab country most susceptible to change at the institutional level.  The political movement in the oil-rich Gulf state does not stem from the political agendas of rival political parties [as formal political parties are not allowed in Kuwait].

Political controversy has always been the bone of contention between the opposition and pro-government [politicians], or in other words the National Assembly (the parliament). This has lead to the dissolution of the parliament on seven occasions since 1976 - and always within the framework of the constitution.

The National Assembly was also dissolved two years ago, the result of the resignation of then-Prime Minister Sheikh Nasser al-Mohammed al-Sabah, after he was accused of corruption and bribing 15 MPs in what was known as  the "Al Kabot Scandal” [which means “closet” in Kuwaiti dialect]. Sheikh al-Sabah was questioned over corruption charges. This is not to mention the storming of the assembly in November [2011].

Today, Kuwaitis head to the polls to choose 50 members who will make up the new 14th National Assembly that will serve for the four years to come. 286 candidates are competing in these exceptional early elections.

The Kuwaiti think-tanks all agree on describing the current electoral scene as [in] “the process of change" that will "shape the future of Kuwait, which is mired in corruption." This change, however, remains uncertain as some Kuwaiti pundits believe that youth groups will enter the assembly. Meanwhile, others speak of the uncertainty of future cooperation between the new parliament and the government which is expected to remain headed by Sheikh Nasser al-Mohammed al-Sabah, who succeeded Sheik Nasser [in the post of prime minister].

Sunni-Shiite tensions, bellicose  political speeches, mutual accusations and political money all mark the electoral atmosphere. The snap legislative elections will take place in 24 hours in five electoral districts, where 400,000 Kuwaitis (over 21 years of age) will cast their votes to elect 10 politicians in each district. Sectarian and tribal divisions are the key factors in alliances and the voting process.

The demands that accompany the electoral campaigns underscore the implementation of radical reforms: setting up a new constitution, fighting against corruption, promoting development, and forming a multi-party system. People also emphasize that the parliamentary majority must choose the prime minister, increasing the number of National Assembly members while others demanded the foundation of a constitutional monarchy - thus reducing the influence of the al-Sabah family.

The Electoral Map

The Kuwaiti opposition - which can be described as the previous opposition, as Sheikh Nasser has now stepped down - seems keen to compete in the elections with the hope that it will increase its total number of seats in the assembly (the last assembly included 19 opposition MPs, seven of which were Shiite). The pro-government forces, on the other hand, seem wary about the election results, fearing that the [ineffective] time in office of [the former Prime Minister] will repeat itself with [newly-appointed Prime Minister] Sheikh Jaber al-Mubarak.

Various political forces are competing in these elections, including Islamists, liberals, independents, and tribes. The most prominent groups are: [1] the National Islamic Alliance that represents the Shia current in Kuwait, which has the upper hand in the first, second and third [electoral districts]. [2] The National Democratic Alliance, which represents the liberal majority in the second and third districts, with Mohammed Jassem al-Saqr running for the Presidency of the National Assembly. [3] The Islamic Constitutional Movement, the mouthpiece of the Muslim Brotherhood, which is prominent in the first, second and third electoral districts. [4] The independent Islamists, such as candidate Mohammed Hayef al-Mutair, who had a dominant presence in the mass demonstrations against the government. Then there is the Salafist movement, which has gained political momentum in the second district, and the Popular Action Bloc. The bloc was recognized for its leading opposition role in the previous National Assembly, despite the fact that it was only represented by three MPs. Ahmed al-Sadoun is the bloc's most prominent figure, and is also running for the presidency of the assembly.

In addition, there are the tribal forces that lead the electoral battle in the fourth and fifth constituencies, namely al-Rashaida tribe in the fourth district and al-Awaem and al-Ajman tribes in the fifth district. This is not to mention the striking presence of the Popular Action Bloc in these same constituencies.

According to an official Kuwaiti source in an interview with Al-Safir, the elections will result in changes to 60% of the assembly's seats, pointing out that "the change will be to the advantage of the youth groups, which are heavily involved in the legislative elections and are putting forward new political ideas." "It is likely that the Sunnis will secure 4 seats against 6 for the Shiites in the first district. Meanwhile, the results could be almost equal in the second district between independents and liberals, on the one hand, and the Islamists on the other," added the same source.

Regarding the third constituency, the Kuwaiti source said "the third district is better described as the core of the battle. It is difficult to predict the electoral results in this constituency, which includes all segments of Kuwaiti society: Sunni, Shia, youth movements, two tribes, and independent forces." In the fourth and fifth districts, the Popular Action Bloc is likely to emerge as the winner based on the tribal alliances "with the possibility that a woman from the tribes will win up to 70% [of the votes] for a seat in the fourth constituency."

With the formation of a [new] parliament in 2012, Kuwaiti observers following the events of the crisis expect that the new government will be headed by Sheikh Jaber Mubarak. Major amendments are also expected to affect the 16-member government.

According to the information obtained by Al-Safir, four candidates are running for the presidency of the National Assembly: Ahmed  al-Sadoun (former head of the National Assembly), Mohamed Saker, Ali al-Rashed - one of the most prominent defenders of Sheikh Nasser al-Mohammed Government - and Abdullah al-Roumi, an independent liberal.
"It has been said  that the Emir is likely to issue a decision granting the 16 ministers - in addition to the right to vote in the National Assembly for the Speaker of the House (and their right to elect the General-Secretary and participate in parliamentary committees) - the freedom to choose the person they see fit for the position of Speaker, without committing to a unanimous decision among ministers as has been the case [in the past]," said the same Kuwaiti source.

There is no doubt that the electoral competition is heated in a country where 80% of the citizens participate in the electoral process. This is proof that the Kuwaiti parliament is the main engine of the social and political action in the Gulf region, which has always lacked a game-changing political drive capable of [adopting] democracy. However, it remains difficult to deny the impact of the Arab Spring on the Kuwaiti [political] scene where people are increasingly raising their voices to "change the constitution."


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