The outcome of Kuwait's third parliamentary election in 18 months offers hope that the country's long-running political paralysis, which has seen 12 governments and six elections in the past seven years, may be coming to an end.
The National Assembly, elected on July 27, is more balanced and inclusive than its two immediate predecessors, the opposition-dominated assembly of February 2012 and the boycott-hit parliament of December 2012. The weakening of the boycott movement also gives greater public and political legitimacy to the new assembly, which convenes on 6 August.
After the supercharged political atmosphere of the February 2012 election and the mass protests ahead of the December 2012 vote, both the electoral campaign and the poll itself were conducted in a strikingly low-key atmosphere. Turnout rose substantially from 39% last December to 52%, indicating that many in Kuwait wish to put the turbulent events of the past eighteen months behind them and move forward. Turnout was still lower than the 60-65% average of Kuwaiti elections, but the election did take place during Ramadan, and at the height of summer in 50-degree heat.
In contrast to the last two National Assemblies, which were dominated by hard-line opposition figures and pro-government loyalists respectively, the new parliament is represented by a more inclusive cross-section of Kuwaiti groups. The broad-based but informal opposition coalition of Islamists, youth groups, tribes, and liberals that boycotted the December election failed to agree on a common political platform and started to break up. This process of fragmentation accelerated when a concerted outreach campaign by senior ruling family members led to leaders of several of Kuwait's largest tribes declaring their intention to re-enter the political process and run candidates.
The greater diversity of candidates is reflected in the electoral results. There will be 23 new MPs, and several veteran MPs lost their seats. Liberal and tribal factions were successful; Liberals gained three seats and tribal candidates won 24 seats. Kuwait’s three largest tribes – the Mutair, the Awazem, and the Ajmi – reversed their support for the boycott and fielded candidates. Significantly many of Kuwait’s smaller tribes – which traditionally have been squeezed out by the larger tribes – won seats. As a result, the National Assembly represents a broader spectrum of Kuwaiti tribal society than most of its recent predecessors.
The main 'losers' were Kuwait’s Shiite minority, which comprises about one-third of Kuwait's national population. Having won 17 seats in December, they now have only eight. Kuwaiti Shiites have traditionally been close to the ruling al-Sabah family and government, unlike in neighbouring Bahrain or Saudi Arabia. Their previous high tally of MPs stemmed from the lack of opposition candidates, but with the return of most political communities to the electoral process, their representation has returned to a more 'customary' level.
Two women – Maasouma al-Mubarak and Safa al-Hashem – won seats. This is one fewer than in the previous parliament, but an improvement on the last fully-contested election in February 2012, when no female MPs were elected.
Notwithstanding its greater political inclusivity and popular backing, the new assembly faces both domestic and regional challenges. Charismatic opposition figureheads such as Musallam al-Barrak remain outside the political arena and retain the capacity to mobilize thousands of supporters against the assembly. The Muslim Brotherhood-affiliated Islamic Constitutional Movement boycotted amid a rising tide of anger among its members at the Kuwaiti government's political and financial support for the military-led removal of President Morsi in Egypt. Furthermore, the overspill of sectarian tensions from Syria threatens to upset the delicate Sunni-Shiite equilibrium in Kuwait, although most of the hard-line MPs on both sides noticeably failed to win seats in the parliament.
After six years of political paralysis and two years of constitutional wrangling, the composition of Kuwait's new National Assembly presents an opportunity for a fresh start. The high number of new MPs signals the emergence of a new political class less tainted by the inflammatory experience of the past two parliaments. The higher-than-expected turnout gives the National Assembly greater political and public legitimacy and undercuts the rejectionist current in the opposition movements. All of these factors are grounds for cautious optimism that Kuwait’s turbulent political landscape may, at last, be coming under control.