Barring vote-rigging or other tricks, there is not much that can prevent Kuwait’s 11th parliament elected Thursday, June 29, from being dominated by Islamic fundamentalist factions.
The 10th house was dissolved by the Emir, Sheikh Sabah al-Ahmad al-Sabah on May 21, a year before term, because of a dispute between the ruler and the lawmakers over the election reform bill. This bill was an opposition attempt to reduce the number of constituencies from 25 to five.
A total of 253 candidates fought for 50 seats, among them for the first time in Kuwait’s history 28 women whose right to vote and be elected was approved in May 2005.
This election was the stormiest ever – mainly because of the rising strength of the fundamentalist opposition, but also because of the spreading taint of corruption surrounding the ruling family, especially the current emir, who was elected in January upon the death of the incumbent. Two other controversies surrounding the vote were over the sudden enlargement of the electorate as a result of female suffrage and competition for women voters, and arguments over how swelling oil revenues should be spent.
Islamists on the march
Some of these factions are close to the Muslim Brotherhood; others are more extreme. In the outgoing parliament they held 18 seats, 36% of the house. Of the 253 candidates running for the new parliament, 45 (18%) are fundamentalists, who can realistically hope to return 20 winners or more, garnering roughly half of all mandates. They will take seats away – not only from pro-government, independent and liberal representatives, but even from conservatives.
DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s sources ascribe the radical Muslim factions’ good showing at the polls to good organization, far superior to the liberal opposition and its strident anti-government agenda, as well as to the support of the oil emirate’s conservative population, the tribal districts and the women. Even though most of the fundamentalists refused to endorse the law granting women the vote, they paradoxically enjoy substantial support from women voters who tend to be pious and conservative.
A corrupt ruling family and government
Never before has the ruling family of Kuwait been exposed to such an outburst of criticism on charges of corruption as it was in this election campaign. The issue was central to the electioneering drives of every opposition speaker, conservatives, fundamentalists and liberals alike. The al-Sabahs were accused bluntly for the first time ever of corrupt practices and buying votes. Fingers pointed at the ruling family and the government accusing them of slipping $40 million to pro-government candidates to buy votes for the sake of preserving the status quo. They were also openly accused of illegally apportioning land to sheikly cronies and handing out fat government contracts to vested interests.
The openness of these charges is a measure of the rising strength of the opposition at both extremes of Kuwait’s political spectrum, the fundamentalists and the liberals, but also of public disapproval of the ruling emir and his inner circle.
The corruption issue also generated the controversy over the bill that forced the early election. The opposition argued that reform to reduce the number of constituencies would also make it harder to buy votes.
Kuwait women may vote and be elected
They have not yet had the chance to translate their new-found rights into real power. Only 11% decided to stand for parliament, although the female vote is larger than the male. Some ran on radical liberal tickets advocating such way-out issues for a Muslim country as separation of religion and state or more equality for women, while another group was backed by the government. Women did not even try to run in the tribal, conservative or extreme religious constituencies. The pundits calculated that the majority of women would vote for men, which shows that Kuwait still has a long way to go before women perceive themselves and their representatives as full equals of men in politics.
Battle over national funding for development
Rising oil prices in recent years have generated an unprecedented $50 billion budget surplus in Kuwait and a similar amount in foreign assets. Two decades of non-investment in development enterprises are making way for a huge spurt of mega-projects costing some $210 billion, including a controversial renovation of the emirate’s northern oil fields at a cost of $8 billion as well as energy projects. Opposition candidates spoke out against these projects, arguing that huge schemes and the concomitant contracts would fall into corrupt hands. Names were not named but aspersions were generally understood to address members of the ruling family, their friends and the fat cats always to be found where big profits are to be made.