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After a long night of counting votes in Kuwait parliament elections live on TV, on 27 November 2016, fifty faces of winners appeared on the front pages of the newspapers. Forty-nine men and one woman.
‘The parliament of the youth…and 62% change’, one of the headlines read. It is true that some relatively young newcomers were elected. It is also true that 62% of the new members of the National Assembly 2016, did not serve in the previous one, dissolved in October 2016. Whether this meant change, and if so, what type of change, remained to be seen.
The opposition, against the government and so against the previous parliament, which was deemed merely an extension of the government, is far from united. The elected opposition candidates, who won 24 of the 50 seats in the election, range from liberals to Islamists, including Salafists and members of a group linked to the Muslim Brotherhood. As such, the new National Assembly seems to do a better job at representing the Kuwaiti society than the previous one.
And a male-oriented society at that. Only one woman was elected: Safa Al Hashem, a liberal politician and a businesswoman who served in the 2013 National Assembly but resigned after one year. The election results remain dominated by men, which is remarkable, since there are more active female than male voters in Kuwait, due to the fact that members of the armed forces and the police have no voting rights. Women gained the right to vote and stand for office in Kuwait in 2005.
It is hard to say why women don’t vote for women. Their voting behaviour may be either a sign that they simply want the best candidate, regardless gender, or that they vote as their husbands tell them. Unless it reflects a lack of self-confidence: “We women are not strong enough to deal with the men in parliament,” a young woman explained.
Equally remarkable is the tribal decline. For example, Al Mutairi, one of the country’s biggest tribes, traditionally has a strong representation in parliament, simply gained by their large base of voters. This time, however, the Al Mutairi tribe only won one seat. The reason: they could not agree on which delegates to run and ended up running with 26 candidates, who, except Majed Al Mutairi who was elected in the fifth district, did not get enough votes to reach the parliament. This could potentially be a sign of a breaking with the strong tribal tradition that marks Kuwaiti politics, but it remains to be confirmed in the longer term.
Whether this diversity of members of the new constellation of the National Assembly will lead to a workable situation largely depends on the appointment by the Amir Sheikh Sabah Al-Ahmad Al-Jaber Al-Sabah of new government members. Co-operation between parliament and the government may only be possible if the new Assembly members are acceptable for the majority. In current times of economic distress and a general lack of vision, such cooperation on a vision to move the country forwards would be much needed.
If no cooperation deal can be reached between the two entities, the country will witness ongoing political fights. Some former members of parliament who failed to return to the National Assembly are already contesting the results, claiming there was tampering with the ballot boxes during the poll count. As the Amir has the ultimate power to dismiss the parliament, Kuwait’s semi-democracy remains vulnerable for the years to come.