By: Jon Nordenson
Obama`s message of change seems to have hit the Gulf, with Kuwaitis electing 21 new faces out of 50 members of parliament, among them the first four female MPs of the country. But both the Prime Minister and the political bottlenecks remain the same.
The 16th of May 2009 was a historic day in Kuwait. For the first time, female candidates won seats in the 50 member parliament. The four women, Massuma al-Mubarak, Aseel al-Awadhi, Rola Dashti and Salwa al-Jassar, performed strongly in their electoral districts, with al-Mubarak – a Shia former health Minister – being the winner in the first district with 21% of the votes.
The 2009 election is the third election in just as many years. It is also the third time women have been able to run for parliament. And even though Kuwaiti women make up 54.3 per cent of the country`s 385,000 eligible voters, it took three attempts to make it to parliament, perhaps underlining this election as one characterized by change.
Other changes took place as well. There are 21 new members in parliament and the Shia groups and the liberals gained strength. The Sunni Islamists were dealt a blow when the the Islamic Constitutional Movement – the local branch of the Muslim Brotherhood – and the more conservative Islamic Salafi Alliance lost more than half of their seats. Waleed al-Tabtabaei, an independent salafi re-elected to parliament, blamed the Islamist`s loss on “the lack of a clear vision on various crucial issues, the counter-campaigns launched against them and the lack of cooperation amongst them”. However, others have pointed to different explanations, such as their conservative outlook and what many have deemed as an unconstructive appearance in parliament. Furthermore, in an election where four women swept into the national assembly, al-Tabtabaei doesn`t seem to be quite in touch with the electorate when he states that “(the women`s) presence will not affect the parliament’s work”.
As for an “unconstructive appearance” in parliament, this refers to the political crisis Kuwait has witnessed over the last years. Under Kuwaiti constitution, MP`s have the right to request “grillings” of cabinet ministers on a subject, which might eventually lead to a vote of no confidence. Lately, these requests have targeted cabinet members form the ruling Sabah-family, over various issues ranging from the destruction of a Mosque built without permit to mismanaging of funds by the PM`s office. Such requests directed at members of the ruling family have not been viewed favorably by the Emir, who invariably dissolved parliament and called for new elections. Paralyzed by this deadlock, the government has not been able to deal with pressing issues, such as a $5bn stimulus package designed to handle the financial crisis. Islamist MP Dr Ali Al-Omair acknowledged this, stating that “Now we are reaping what had been sown through previous Islamist parliamentary practices, namely the numerous grilling motions submitted by Islamic lawmakers, which were too much for the people”. Thus, in the words of newly elected Aseel al-Awadhi, “People voted for change because people are fed up with deadlocks”.
However, while the election certainly brought about change, not all trouble makers from the previous parliament were punished by the electorate. For even though the mainstream Sunni Islamists may have suffered from an electorate fed up with crisis, several of the “crisis MP`s” – MP`s who requested grilling – were re-elected. Among them is MP Dhaifallah Buramia, who already has warned that if the ministers of defense and interior are re-appointed, crisis will erupt once again. Furthermore, the Emir announced on May 20th that he once again has given his nephew Sheikh Nasser Mohammad Al-Ahmad Al-Sabah the task of forming a new government. As many of the grillings were directed at the Prime Minister himself, this may signal continued conflict between parliament and cabinet. Lastly, the re-appointment of the PM after an election of change leads us to perhaps Kuwait`s biggest political problem of all; the power struggle between the royal family and the elected deputies. Though few criticize the royal family directly, the contradiction between an elected parliament and a government appointed by the Emir is plain for all to see. Or as al-Jazeera`s Hashem Ahelbarra puts it: “Kuwait faces the challenge of maintaining a relatively democratic system while preserving quasi-absolute powers of the ruling family”.
So while this election certainly brought change, and hopefully signaled wider acceptance of women in Kuwaiti politics, it did not revolutionize Kuwaiti politics. Furthermore, it probably did not solve the fundamental issues behind the political crisis. As many grow tired of a crisis-ridden parliament-government relationship not able to deal with pressing issues, Kuwait`s democratic project may pay heavily for a continued deadlock.