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December 7, 2012

Kuwait elections: last chance for the government to initiate reforms and risky gambling for the opposition


A team of Arab and international observers, which was invited by the Kuwait Transparency Society (KTS) to Kuwait to observe the Dec 1, 2012  elections, finished its report and made certain recommendations made public right after the elections. According to the report, the elections went smoothly despite the fact that the government granted the opposition a license for their protest held just a day before the elections, while the team of observers based on the recommendations of previous elections ( February 2012) requested a period of pre-election silence of two days. The opposition was thus given an advantage though it was against the norms of pre-election silence; also other irregularities were noted as threats and pressure expressed by leading opposition figures against tribes members. Many political leaders issued a statement according to which individuals belonging to particular tribes would no more be considered as tribe’s members if they breached the call for abstention. Such threats can weigh  heavily in culturally conservative and closed communities and could also be compared with tribes' internal elections practices that were banned by law. Still, the voting process itself was satisfactory in spite of the large boycott of the Islamist/tribes opposition. Women and the Shiite minority took advantage of the boycott to run and mobilize massively their supporters.


I. The elections were fair & transparent yet the opposition bad miscalculation may lead the country to the edge of break


While the tribes and Islamists were calling for the boycott of the election, a group of women coalition called “Women voice”decided to make a collective effort and organise an awareness festival titled “participating in Building Kuwait” to encourage citizens to vote in the December first election.


Similar call was made by the Shiite leadership during Ashoura celebrations. This year coinciding with the pre-electoral period. Shiite won massively in the first and second constituency where they outnumber other groups. Also the first and second constituency watched the highest turnout comparing to the fifth constituency dominated by the tribes where the turnout was at it’s lowest levels.


The primary approximate total voting percentage in all the five constituencies was 40.3 while it was 59.5 during the previous elections. The primary statistics were based on the voters register and the comparison with the previous elections.  The finale statics gave a percentage around 38.8 of voters. The observers met with representatives of the Ministry of Information, the higher national committee for elections, some candidates, and some of those boycotting the elections.


1. Positive developments:


The Arab international delegation comprised of 22 experts from NGOs hailing from 15 Arab countries, besides the Netherlands and the United States. They went on field visits to all the five electoral constituencies and visited more than 150 committees. They issued their statement after the electoral process was concluded, giving approximate numbers and some clear recommendations.


The formation of the national higher committee for elections, which is completely independent, was a key positive point that figured in the team’s observations. Formation of this committee was in line with an earlier recommendation of the Arab and International team issued last February, and is a positive step to strengthen the transparency and ensure independence of elections. Yet there was a need to make the institution more independent but also to diversify it’s  membership now limited to male judges. The observers requested the involvement of other individuals renown for their experience and integrity belonging to civil society, academics, business corporations, NGOs as well as female members reflecting the diversity of the Kuwaiti society.


The report also appreciated the application of international standards of integrity in elections and the decision to follow international principles for local observers. It also appreciated inclusion of the clause about maintaining electoral silence, just before actual balloting, to the law no. 21/2012. This provision decreases the pressure and tension among the candidates, as previous elections watched heated fights, hatred speech and quarrelling continuing at the eve of the election day. The elections of December first, went by smoothly without the policemen appearing inside the voting rooms neither major incidents at or around polling centres.


The report mentioned that international criteria specified for elections were followed. These include maintaining the secrecy of balloting, ensuring correct voting procedures by the judges, and allowing the KTS along with the Arab and international monitoring team to monitor the elections freely.


2. Negative observations:


The team of observers criticized the criteria for media and advertising for elections and described these as not being clear. It noted that election campaign speeches were being broadcast even on the day of the election. It also criticized the upper age limit for voters and candidates that should be set at 18 years old. In addition, the report found the number of voters in some committees as being very high, which resulted in a longer wait. The international norm for the number is between 400- 600 voters. The team of observers requested also the installation of a quota system allowing women to secure seats in a new parliament.  Though 3 were elected, yet the new female MPs as well as the Shiite MPs success was due to the boycott of Islamists opposition. A quota system for women as well as the review of the electoral district system are a necessity if Kuwait is about to overcome the gender gap as well as the growing sectarian divide. The system of one man one vote seems fair enough and will curve the dominance of some political groups fostering better representation and more equity. But the new system can’t be successful without reviewing the unequal division of voters in the five constituencies, as there are 47,772 voters in the second constituency while the fifth constituency has 118,461 voters, though all constituencies have the same number (ten) of seats.


The team of observers concluded that “All the previous negative observations were not in the category of any suspicions about correctness of procedure or transparency of the electoral process. We hope that next elections will be held according to the new election law that takes into account our recommendations


II. Opposition’s intransigence:  a risky gambling in a highly volatile context


Once the election results announced,  the opposition, as confirmed to the international observers team during the meetings held with them during the election day, reiterated immediately that it will continue with street protests until the newly-elected National Assembly is scrapped and the one-vote decree is withdrawn.


The opposition held an emergency meeting after the ballots closed on Saturday and declared that the election was unconstitutional and that the new Assembly is illegitimate.


The opposition also said that based on their monitoring, the voter turnout was a meagre 26.7 percent whereas the Information Ministry website reported a 38.8 percent turnout. The opposition stressed they were monitoring the polling centres while others have perceived their presence as threat spying and intimidating for ones who were willing to vote in tribal districts mainly the fifth and four district.

The new Assembly must meet within two weeks of announcing the results officially. This will be made by the newly-established National Election Commission.


1. Shiites doubled their strength while Islamists saw their seats shrinking due to their boycott of the elections


While Kuwaiti leadership may now have a parliament that does not oppose it, there is a significant trench of the  population which is on the opposition’s. In Saturday’s election the three largest Bedouin tribes, the Awazem, Mutair and Ajman, which together have a population of over 430,000, won only one seat compared to an average of 17 seats in previous assemblies. The other seats were taken by smaller tribes which got now the opportunity to win seats with the new one-vote system. Three women were also elected for the second time while Sunni Islamists, who held 23 seats in 2012 Assembly, were reduced to just four (the majority of Islamists boycotted the elections). 17 candidates from the Shiite minority won seats for the first time ever. Shiites more than doubled their strength compared to seven seats in the 2012 scrapped Assembly and nine seats in 2009. Yet in spite of the Shiite legitimate success one should not forget that Kuwait is a small country with around 1 million Kuwaitis. No matter the failure of the boycott, the three largest Bedouin tribes being absent from the newly elected parliament is still a significant absence.


2. Political immaturity or a terrible miscalculation?


Seen the regional tensions and the critical situation in Kuwait, the Islamist opposition has risked all for all with this highly risky gambling. By calling for all or nothing they have badly miscalculated, besides transforming a political struggle into a sectarian one is a dangerous manoeuvre for the fragile context of Kuwait in a very volatile regional context. 


True, the new parliament will probably be significantly less intransigent than its predecessors where the Islamist/Tribal opposition dominated and blocked anything and everything, even issuing some unpopular bills. The most unpopular bills were censured by the emir as the one calling for the death penalty for Muslims who curse God or the so called religious offences. Attempts have been made to amend the constitution to have Sharia become the only law in Kuwait and to impose a “modesty of appearance” law for both genders, a headscarf law for women, and calling to ensure the application of a gender segregation law in educational institutions.


Seen the above mentioned unpopular amendments by previous Islamists MPs, there is a chance that newly elected  Kuwaiti Parliament if it may succeed to survive massive Islamist/tribes protest and if they succeed to initiate accurate needed reforms by getting things done as tackling the issue of corruption, economical reforms, unemployment….etc., a horror scenario may unfold for the opposition. This will probably be the main reason why the opposition will make any effort to get this newly elected parliament dissolved as soon as possible. The success of the newly elected parliament means however the end of the Islamist/Tribal opposition era.


Conclusion: There is no other option but reforms and democracy consolidation in Kuwait..


First, the opposition will do it’s utmost best to see the newly elected parliament dissolved before it ever starts. Second the government is keen to see new parliament seated as soon as possible. Yet  seen the charges pending against some newly elected MPs, the background of some newly elected Shiite politicians known for their radical speech,  the question rises if the upcoming parliament would be up to the mission impossible?


Indeed to be successful the government will need  to get some  tangible  reforms done via the newly elected parliament; show it is working. The newly elected Shiite MPs will need to trim down their sectarian rhetoric, pondering their sectarian approach to politics, reaching out to the tribes,  making a tangible difference for the Kuwaitis fed up with political and sectarian turmoil.  The government will also need to give the newly appointed anti-corruption institution more powers, enabling the structure to function professionally properly and independently addressing the core issue of corruption, which is becoming a pandemic societal phenomena in Kuwait (involving influential individuals, former MP’s linked to the government and even members of the actual opposition).


Reforming the electoral system by reviewing the number of voters per district will consolidate the switching to the one-vote system. Introducing quota’s for women will give an opportunity to female candidates to be involved in a vivid political life pondering the sectarian and conservative speech.  Seen the complexity of the budgetary and need for crucial economical reforms, some standards should be requested before a candidate is allowed to get into parliament, a minimum of university degree as well as working experience would be a must and would elevate the political debate.


None of the above mentioned recommendations may be necessarily easy to do in the very conservative context,  based on clientelism, family and tribal ties, but it is surely easier now than it was under the previous  tribal/ Islamist dominated parliament. Yet such policy seems  inevitable and the only option  for Kuwait, if Kuwait is about to survive and come out of its political turmoil.


There is an urgent priority to tackle the issue of stalled development, stagnated growth  and paralysed economical life. The issues of sectarism, corruption, lack of women leadership and political participation, youth unemployment, reform of education, health system, and the private sector need all to be addressed. The Kuwaiti leadership will have to make some tangible concessions if they are about to resolve the serious issues of growing populism and   sectarism…no doubt genuine reforms will need sacrifices from all.




If the above mentioned positive scenario is successful it will mean that the hardcore tribal/Islamist elements may shrink, as successful reforms may gain broader support and sympathy to the government leaving the opposition divided. Their demonstrations may get unpopular, by their intransigence in the previous parliament and by calling to boycott of the election. Their actions right after elections without giving any chance to the new parliament nor to the yet to form government to deliver, starting by attacking some national non government structures as Kuwait Transparency Society; calling for massive protest animated by hatred speech against particular groups,  also criticising even the Emir when he saluted the newly elected female MPs.  Such negative attitude could very well be perceived as counterproductive and a manoeuvre obstructing the normalization of Kuwaiti politics and even fostering a climate of dangerous sectarian divide. Parts of the population may also get tired of this division and lack of progress.


In essence a very dangerous irresponsible and obstructive attitude giving no space for  concessions nor constructive dialogue. It may indirectly lead to turn many Kuwait against the opposition. The Kuwaiti society is diverse and always perceived  sectarian divide as a non existent and taboo issue. Yet  the recent elections remembered Kuwaiti of the ugly face of sectarism. What was a call to all Kuwaiti to boycott the elections became a hardcore tribal/Islamist boycott, while other groups voted massively. Also the intransigent attitude of the boycotting opposition raised many questions among Kuwaiti : does the opposition have other plans or alternatives rather than bringing Kuwait to the edge of break-down? Are there any other options for the tribal/Islamist  opposition to interact with the Kuwaiti government or only the destructive option of dragging tribes/youth into protesting  and disrupting Kuwaiti society?


If the Parliament will be able to make a significant difference comparing to the previous one  and the population will become increasingly disillusioned and tired of the oppositions'  disruptive and counterproductive attitude, a shift in the development of Kuwait might occur.


One thing for sure : Tribal/Islamist opposition as well as newly elected Shiite MPs should be constitutionally bound to respect  each other and all other groups within the Kuwaiti state if they are about to succeed and consolidate or even maintain democracy in Kuwait. The one vote system is the first step in the right direction. Yet many other steps are needed, otherwise democracy will remain an illusion in a region exacerbated by tensions and a system unable to adapt; creating more challenges rather than resolving critical and existential issues.


Tribal/Islamist opposition as well as newly elected Shiite MPs should be constitutionally bound to respect  each other and all other groups within the Kuwaiti state if they are about to succeed and consolidate or even maintain democracy in Kuwait.



Amal Hamidallah

Bridging the Gulf Foundation (GCC)