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New parliament in Kuwait

Last week’s parliamentary elections in Kuwait have resulted in an all-male assembly that will need to face up to some major financial challenges

Ahmed Mostafa , Thursday 10 Dec 2020
New parliament  in Kuwait
(photo: Reuters)

Expatriate workers in Kuwait might be relieved that anti-immigrant MP Safaa Al-Hashem lost her seat in the Kuwaiti National Assembly, the country’s parliament, in the parliamentary elections that took place in Kuwait on Saturday. Al-Hashem was the only female MP in Kuwait and had earlier been many times re-elected.

In recent years, she had often attacked expatriate workers in the oil-rich Gulf country, with some of her remarks almost amounting to racist slurs. Al-Hashem once said that expatriates “must be charged for everything, medical services, infrastructure and even for the air they breathe.” She had specifically targeted Egyptian expatriates in Kuwait. In Saturday’s elections, she suffered a humiliating defeat, receiving only 430 votes compared to the 3,273 she received in the last elections in 2016.

As a result, of Al-Hashem’s failure to be re-elected, the new Kuwaiti parliament will be an all-male affair. None of the 29 female candidates standing for election were elected, despite the fact that more than half of registered voters in Kuwait are female.

The 18th parliamentary elections in Kuwait are the first to take place under new Emir Sheikh Nawaf Al-Ahmad Al-Sabah who succeeded his late brother sheikh Sabah Al-Ahmad in September. They also took place during the Covid-19 pandemic, but even so voter turnout was more than 60 per cent of the more than 567,000 Kuwaiti citizens registered to vote.

Only 19 MPs from the previous assembly kept their seats, with the remaining 50 being filled with new faces. The country has five constituencies, with 10 MPs for each. Around 326 candidates competed in the elections, with campaigns focusing on issues such as combatting corruption, creating jobs for young people and spending on health and education.

Though Kuwait has the freest assembly in the Arab Gulf countries and conducts the most transparent elections, there are no official political parties in the country. There are known political groups and trends, however, with most MPs supporting the ruling Al-Sabah family. In the past, the parliament has brought down governments and pressured ministers to resign.

There were liberal, leftist and Islamist candidates in last week’s elections, with the latter including Salafi and Brotherhood candidates. The elections brought more independent MPs into parliament, and opposition MPs increased from 16 in the last parliament to 24 in this one.

Apart from the Shiite bloc in the new parliament, which retained its six seats from the previous assembly, the political right lost ground. The Salafi Islamist grouping failed to be represented by any MP, while the Constitutional Islamic Movement managed to get three seats and the National Islamic Alliance one seat.

Traditionally, Kuwaitis vote on family and tribal lines rather than on political affiliations, and last week’s elections were no exception to this rule. That might explain the larger number of independent candidates elected. However, maverick independents like Musallam Al-Barrak and Abdel-Hamid Dashti did not run as they are currently in exile following their indictment on various charges in Kuwait.

The new parliament is faced with many mainly economic challenges. The Covid-19 pandemic and low oil prices have put huge pressure on government finances, and one minister in the outgoing cabinet recently warned that the government might even not be able to pay all monthly salaries.

Kuwait has the fourth-largest sovereign wealth fund in the world at more than half a trillion dollars, but the government is not allowed to withdraw from it to finance current expenditure, especially from that part called the Future Generations Fund.

This means that the government may have to resort to borrowing to plug the budget deficit this year, which is expected to reach 40 per cent of GDP. It will need parliamentary approval to issue bonds or to borrow from the sovereign wealth fund.

Other Arab Gulf countries have introduced measures to adjust public finances, such as imposing VAT or other economic reforms. But Kuwait has not, and the country’s new MPs will now have to look into approving new laws to raise the deficit ceiling to allow further government borrowing.

They are likely to face a public backlash, however, as there are fears that some of this money may be lost to corruption. Various high-profile corruption cases have rocked the country, some of them involving senior officials and MPs.

The Kuwaiti parliament is the most active legislature in the region, and it has more say in shaping government policy than any other body in the Gulf. Even though its members are elected mostly on tribal lines and as a result of family allegiances, it is still representative of the country’s social fabric.

*A version of this article appears in print in the 10 December, 2020 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.

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