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Kuwait vote sees two-thirds of parliament, including its only woman, lose seats

Election for 50-seat National Assembly brings in crop of 21 first-time lawmakers who will have to deal with a debt crisis and the ongoing coronavirus pandemic

A man casts his vote for parliamentary elections in the town of Hawally, Kuwait, December 5, 2020. (Jaber Abdulkhaleg/AP)
A man casts his vote for parliamentary elections in the town of Hawally, Kuwait, December 5, 2020. (Jaber Abdulkhaleg/AP)

KUWAIT CITY — Kuwaitis elected a new parliament in an election that saw two-thirds of lawmakers and the country’s only female legislator lose their seats, election results released Sunday showed.

The direction that the new 50-seat National Assembly will take remains unclear as 21 of them will become first-time legislators when they are sworn in December 15. However, the challenges that face them remain the same in this oil-rich nation now struggling with a debt crisis and the ongoing coronavirus pandemic.

Saturday’s election for Kuwait’s parliament, the freest and most-rambunctious assembly in the Gulf Arab countries, saw an over-60 percent turnout of the country’s more than 560,000 registered voters. Under Kuwait’s system, the country is broken up into five voting districts, from which the top 10 candidates in each go on to parliament.

Online videos showed celebrations, with candidates lifted onto supporters’ shoulders, or in one case, riding a horse into a tent as traditional music blared.

The breakdown of what side the new legislators fell on was not immediately clear. Major blocs include those backing the ruling Al Sabah family, Islamists and relative liberals in this country where alcohol is illegal.

Safa al-Hashem, parliament’s lone female lawmaker, lost her seat after getting only 430 votes, compared to 3,273 in 2016. She had gained notoriety for her anti-foreign worker stances, including at one point saying that expatriates “must be charged for everything, for medical services, infrastructure and again I say for the air they breathe here.”

Liberal MP Safa Al Hashem, right, speak with other lawmakers during a National Assembly session in Kuwait, September 4, 2013. (Gustavo Ferrari/AP/File)

As is custom after an election, Kuwait’s ruling emir Sheikh Nawaf Al Ahmad Al Sabah ordered the Cabinet dissolved, ahead of the new parliament taking its seats.

Big changes

Thirty-one new faces will enter the new parliament, results showed.

The Muslim Brotherhood-linked Islamic Constitutional Movement(ICM) won three seats, while candidates from the Shiite minority population won six.

“There is a big change in the composition of the new National Assembly,” Kuwait analyst Ayed al-Manaa told AFP.

“This is an indication of the voters’ anger over the performance of the previous parliament and of their desire for change in economic, health, education,” and services, he said.

Like most Gulf countries, Kuwait’s economy and state budgets have been slammed by the double whammy of the pandemic and the depressed price of oil, with the International Monetary Fund expecting the economy to shrink by about 8% this year.

Officials in the country, where foreigners make up 70% of the 4.8 million population, have already said they want to slash that proportion to 30% of the total population.

Kuwaiti voters, wearing protective masks amid the COVID-19 pandemic, have their temperature checked before entering a polling station in Kuwait City, during parliamentary elections on December 5, 2020. (Yasser Al-Zayyat/ AFP)

Lulwa Saleh Al-Mulla, head of the Kuwaiti Women’s Cultural and Social Society, said she was hopeful about the new younger members in parliament, but disappointed by the lack of women’s representation.

“Still, the people participated positively in the polls for change and toppled some of the corrupt elements that distorted the image of democracy and abused their positions in the assembly,” she said.

No political parties

Political parties are banned in Kuwait, which has been ruled by the Al-Sabah family for two and a half centuries. The country adopted a parliamentary system in 1962.

Many groups operate freely as de facto parties. The opposition coalition is made up of individuals, rather than well-defined parties with a distinct ideology.

While parliament has the power to vote the prime minister and cabinet members out of office, the Kuwaiti political set-up means change is not easy.

Power is concentrated in the royal family, with the emir choosing the prime minister and 15 of the 16 cabinet posts.

Economic challenges

The vote came after the death in September of Kuwait’s ruler, the 91-year-old Sheikh Sabah Al Ahmad Al Sabah. Sheikh Nawaf, 83, quickly took power without any opposition. The outgoing parliament then approved Sheikh Nawaf’s choice for crown prince, Sheikh Meshal Al Ahmad Al Jaber, the 80-year-old deputy head of Kuwait’s National Guard.

Sheikh Nawaf al-Ahmad Al-Sabah salutes the crowd after being sworn in as Kuwait’s new emir, at the National Assembly in Kuwait City on September 30, 2020. (Yasser Al-Zayyat/AFP)

The new parliament will need to make decisions on a number of matters, perhaps none more important than Kuwait’s economy.

This fall, the ratings agency Moody’s downgraded Kuwait for the first time in its history. The finance minister warned that the government soon would not be able to pay salaries. Kuwait’s national bank said the country’s deficit could hit 40% of its gross domestic product this year, the highest level since the financial devastation of the 1990 Iraqi invasion and subsequent Gulf War.

With crude oil prices just above $45 a barrel, other nearby Arab states took on debt, trimmed subsidies, or introduced taxes to sustain their spending. Kuwait, however, did none of that.

That’s not to say that Kuwait will be begging for aid at international summits anytime soon. The Kuwait Investment Authority holds assets of $533 billion, according to the Las Vegas-based Sovereign Wealth Fund Institute, making it the world’s fourth-largest such fund.

The problem is that Kuwait has no legal framework to deficit-spend beyond its current limit of $33 billion. It needs the country’s parliament to grant approval. But lawmakers likely will face a popular backlash as the public fears the money will be lost to corruption amid a series of high-profile cases shaking the country.

Kuwait has the world’s sixth-largest known oil reserves. The country hosts some 13,500 American troops, many at Camp Arifjan south of Kuwait City, which is also home to the forward command of US Army Central.

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