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Uncertainty looms ahead of Kuwait elections

Political deadlock over parliamentary election likely to cut both ways

  • By Abbas Al Lawati, Staff Reporter
  • Published: 16:56 November 30, 2012
  • Gulf News

  • Image Credit: Abbas Al Lawati/Gulf News
  • Rally started with the releasing of orange balloons and the singing of the national anthem
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Kuwait City: Uncertainty loomed in Kuwait on the eve of the parliamentary elections as the broad based opposition refused to back down from a mass boycott of the voting in protest of a perceived move towards autocracy.

Opposition blocs comprising of Islamists, tribes and liberals decided to boycott the elections following a decree by the emir reducing the number of candidates a voter can elect from four to one. Opponents have argued that it is an attempt to produce a compliant parliament that will allow the government to pass laws without appropriate foresight from the legislature.

“One of the main dimensions of the current crisis is that it has led to a deep division in Kuwaiti society, and the exclusion from politics of a faction of the political elite,” Shafiq Ghabra, political science professor at Kuwait University, told Gulf News.

That faction, he said, would be pushed into the street, falling outside the parameters of acceptable political dissent as defined by parliamentary practice.

There is, however, uncertainty as to what shape the next parliament will take and how compliant it will be. Analysts have said that not all of those who are running are necessarily pro-government.

“There is a hard opposition and a soft opposition,” said Mary Ann Tetreault, an expert on Kuwaiti politics. “The hard opposition will be left out of parliament, and the soft opposition will be hopeful that without Islamists and tribes, they will get things done”.

The emir has in the past week told the opposition that parliament, not the street, was the acceptable platform for dissent. The first two major opposition rallies were banned by the government and led to confrontations with police when the ban was defied. Friday’s rally was, however, licensed, a move political science professor considered a significant achievement for the opposition. Political rallies were previously confined to Erada Square, outside the National Assembly.

“There will be question marks on the political value of the next parliament,” said Ganem Al Najjar, professor of political science at Kuwait University. “Some districts will have a higher turnout than others, but I expect overall turnout to be less than 50 per cent”.

The opposition hopes that by boycotting the elections, it will encourage a low voter turnout which will in turn lead to the questioning of the next parliament’s legitimacy and hasten its dissolution. According to Al Najjar, it will now focus its efforts on contesting the constitutionality of the emiri decree through the elections contestations committee that is linked to the Constitutional Court, and push for the dissolution of the parliament.

The last time there was a major boycott in Kuwaiti elections was 1990. After intense pressure to reinstate the suspended parliament, the emir set up a largely toothless elected body called the National Council, which was boycotted by those who considered it a move to appease the opposition. The government recorded a record low voter turnout. In 1967, a group of merchants boycotted National Assembly elections due to concerns about vote rigging.

The government, said analysts, knows well that the coming political conditions, in which an unrelenting opposition continues to boycott parliamentary politics, is not sustainable.

“The government is buying time. It will be an opportunity to pass laws and move forward with economic development without letting the opposition take credit for it,” said Ghabra.

He added, however, that the opposition may also benefit from time outside of parliament: “If the opposition is left out of parliament, it is likely to change and deepen its roots… It will become radicalised and become more susceptible to street pressure from the youth, which is very strong”.

By refusing to give in to the opposition’s demands, added Ghabra, “it’s doing the opposition a great service”.

Tetreault, however, warned that if the next parliament appears to be incompetent “it will be pushed out”.

“The government needs to score points to defend itself,” said Al Najjar. “But if it fails, the opposition cannot be blamed for it”.

The political grouping that is expected to make significant gains is the Shiite bloc, one of the strongest blocs contesting the elections. Shiites have not fared well since the 2006 reforms that saw the electoral districts reduced from 25 to five and number of votes per voter from two to four. Opposition figures have faulted the bloc for continuing to side with the government but pro-government Shiites say they cannot enter an alliance with an Islamist-dominated alliance.

Analysts say there is no way of guessing how the government and the opposition will get out of the deadlock. The government will seek to ensure that the parliament serves its four-year term, and the opposition will look for ways to get it dissolved. Much depends on how each side’s position evolves during the term of the coming parliament.

“The developments we should be watching out for are not those of these elections, but the next ones,” said Ghabra.

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