After Saturday’s general election, Kuwait faces a long period of political instability with the opposition and its allies winning 24 out of parliament’s 50 seats, and a majority of those elected have bluntly said that they will oppose any of the government’s austerity measures to boost non-oil income. This means that it will be much harder for the government to work with the new parliament to pass what the government says are vital reforms as it wrestles with a dramatic fall in its revenues — thanks to fall in the oil price.
Despite the result, the government will keep a working majority because all cabinet ministers automatically become members of parliament and so they will boost the government vote, even if by a small number. The dramatic shift is because the opposition stopped its boycott of parliamentary elections, which it had started after the previous elections in order to protest over a change to the voting system.
Around half of the successful opposition MPs are from a Muslim Brotherhood-linked group and Salafists. The strength of the opposition in the new parliament means that it will act with a lot more confidence, frequently grilling ministers and it may feel ready to use its powers to possibly vote them out of office as parliament has done in the past. The new parliament comes as Kuwait faces the most acute budget crisis in years. Oil income, which provides about 95 per cent of government revenues, has collapsed by 60 per cent over the past two years, meaning that the government has been forced to post its first budget deficit of $15 billion (Dh55.17 billion) last year, following 16 years of surpluses.
This is why the government wants to cut fuel and utility subsidies in order to try to reduce the deficit, and this plan is deeply unpopular as the voters fear the extra costs that will land on them. The government also wants to impose corporate taxes and privatise some state-owned companies to help the oil-rich nation raise new revenue after crude prices slumped, but the new parliament will not want to help this process at all.
The challenge for the government and opposition will be to work out a way for them to work together constructively. The last thing that Kuwait needs at this stage is a political impasse with both sides focusing on criticising the other while the country loses out.