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Hard-liners' win in Kuwait puts reformers' goals in doubt

Economic development was key for many Kuwaitis, but Saturday's parliamentary poll seated tribal leaders and Islamists, signaling more political stagnation ahead. While women won the right to vote in 2005, no female candidates were elected.

By Jamie EtheridgeCorrespondent of The Christian Science Monitor / May 19, 2008

A Kuwaiti citizen cast his vote in a polling station in Salwa, Kuwait, during parliamentary elections on Saturday.

GUSTAVO FERRARI/AP

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Kuwait City, Kuwait

The vote was meant to resolve a two-year political standoff between parliamentarians and the country's cabinet ministers. But after hard-line Islamists and tribal leaders scored major victories in Saturday's parliamentary poll, many say the bickering will only continue, keeping this oil-rich nation from catching up to its booming Gulf neighbors.

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The speedy economic development in Dubai and Qatar, the newly glitzy emirates where democracy doesn't get in the way of business, loomed large in the election here. Many Kuwaitis blame both the government and the parliament for the lack of progress even though the country had $32.7 billion surplus for the 2007-08 fiscal year.

"Kuwaitis are very disappointed at being left behind in terms of advancement [compared] to their [Gulf] neighbors, especially since Kuwait led the region up until the '80s," says Suliman al-Atiqi, a management student at the American University of Kuwait.

"Kuwait has now definitely acknowledged the competition ... and seems very eager for a comeback. A comeback however will only be under way should the government privatize further government-controlled fields and find a way to make business easier to conduct from a bureaucratic level," he says.

Islamist and tribal MPs have traditionally rejected government proposals for economic reform, preferring instead to perpetuate a cradle-to-grave welfare system. For example, in the last parliament, tribal and Islamist MPs supported a proposal to forgive Kuwaiti citizens personal debt estimated at more than 4.6 billion dinars (about $17 billion). The government balked at the plan but later agreed to set up a fund to help debt-ridden Kuwaitis, many of whom face jail terms when they default on loans.

Kuwait has a long history of democratic engagement. Its first parliament sat in 1963 and Kuwaitis strongly back rule of law and the Constitution. Even so the parliament has been dissolved five times, three times by the previous emir – in 1976 for five years, in 1986 for six years and again in 1999.

The oil-rich country's Emir Sheikh Sabah al-Ahmed al-Sabah dissolved parliament in March, the second time in two years, after a series of political crises in the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries' (OPEC) fourth-largest oil producer. Since the June 2006 elections, four cabinets have resigned, several ministers have been reshuffled or have resigned in order to avoid questioning by parliament or face a vote of no confidence.

In Saturday's vote, tribal MPs took 23 seats in the assembly, hard-line Islamists won 11 seats, liberals took 11 seats, and Shiite candidates won five seats.

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