Voter Backlash Brings Lots of New Faces to Kuwait’s Assembly

  • Thirty of 50 lawmakers lose seats in Saturday’s election
  • New assembly may find relations with government strained

Kuwait Sees Voter Backlash

The majority of Kuwait’s outgoing parliament has been voted out of office after citizens used Saturday’s election to voice displeasure with austerity measures imposed to prop up state finances in an era of cheap oil.

With turnout at a strong 70 percent, only 20 of the previous parliament’s members held onto their seats in the 50-member body, local media reported on Sunday. The next chamber will be dominated by a mix of new candidates and opposition leaders who were returned to office.

Kuwait, which is running a budget deficit after a decade of surpluses, may now find passing fiscal reforms harder in the future. The government, which is appointed by the emir, has tried to curtail some of its largess by cutting fuel and utility subsidies to plug the deficit. It has also mapped out a program that would impose corporate taxes and privatize some state-owned companies to help the oil-rich nation raise new revenue after crude prices slumped.

“The new parliament could be less compliant with the government, given the substantial change in its members, and the turnaround suggests unhappiness with the previous assembly,” said Monica Malik, chief economist at Abu Dhabi Commercial Bank. “Much of the campaigning focused on the unpopular fiscal austerity measures, despite being much weaker than those in other Gulf countries.’’

The election afforded a rare opportunity for voters to make their voices heard amid a crackdown on political dissent. The state has shut down newspapers critical of government policy and stripped some dissidents of their citizenship. Opposition firebrand Musallam el-Barrak is serving a two-year prison sentence for insulting the emir in a speech.

Pocketbooks Hit

Many voters were angered by what they perceived as a lack of opposition among the assembly’s previous members to government reforms that hit their pocketbooks.

“‘Stop the government’s march on our pockets,’ was the message of the voters in the fourth district,” Al Rai newspaper reported. Some voters interviewed by the newspaper want the incoming lawmakers to undo the steps taken over the past two years.

“A popular uprising knocks out the majority of the 2013 parliament,’’ read the headline of Kuwait’s Al Jarida newspaper. “60 percent of members changed and the opposition returns.’’

Women and Shiites suffered a setback in the vote in the Sunni-dominated legislature. Only one woman was elected, and the number of Shiite lawmakers fell to six from nine.

The country’s prime minister will now appoint a 16-member cabinet, which must contain at least one member from the elected parliament, said Graham Griffiths, an analyst at Control Risks in Dubai. Because the cabinet takes part in parliamentary votes, it is likely to resist pressure to include more than the minimum number of lawmakers, he said.

“The fact that the appointed ministers also vote means that the government generally has a comfortable majority when it comes to any particular vote,’’ Griffiths said. “The incoming assembly will be combative, but I don’t know how effective they’ll be.’’

Kuwait, often seen as the most democratic of the six Gulf states, has witnessed tumultuous relations between the elected parliament and the government appointed by the country’s hereditary emir. The clashes stalled economic development and led the emir to dissolve parliament repeatedly between 2008 and 2013. Parliament doesn’t set the legislative agenda and its powers are limited to questioning ministers and opening investigations.

“The people voted against financial reform and the government must reform the financial situation,’’ said Khaled Alfadala, a political activist in Kuwait. “Too early to call how the government will respond to the results but don’t be surprised to see elections in 2017.’’

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