Democrats, Islamists Succeed in Kuwait

OPPOSITION candidates won a sweeping majority of seats in Kuwait's parliamentary elections, spelling problems for the ruling emir's autocratic style of government.

Candidates who had voiced criticism of the government won 35 of the 50 parliament seats, according to results announced Oct. 6. "People are looking for a change," says Ghanem al-Najjar, a political analyst. "This will be a strong parliament, and strongly against the government."

The striking success of conservative Islamic candidates, however, and of other political moderates, suggests that the new National Assembly is unlikely to push fiercely for the sort of rapid and radical change that could risk a conflict with the ruling Al-Sabah family.

"I don't think they will be confrontational," predicts political science professor Abdullah al-Shayeji. "They will try to work things out."

The first test of the emir's readiness to work with the parliament that he dissolved in 1986 is expected to come in two weeks' time, when Crown Prince Saad al-Abdallah al-Sabah, the prime minister, names his new Cabinet.

In their election campaigns, many of the candidates urged that a substantial number of the 16 Cabinet ministers should be chosen from the National Assembly. Traditionally, only two ministers have come from their number.

A number of other issues loom as potential battlegrounds between government and parliament, most notably the opposition groups' near-unanimous demand for a full investigation of how the royal family led Kuwait up until the Iraqi invasion in August 1990 and subsequent occupation.

"How did it happen, why did it happen?" asks Ismael al-Shatti, who won a seat in the legislature on the Islamic Constitutional Movement list. "Why wasn't the Army mobilized, why didn't we have time to ask for help from a foreign country, why didn't we deal adequately with the threat?"

Although Crown Prince Saad has said he does not oppose an investigation, "opening the file on [the invasion] could be very divisive," warns one Western diplomat.

Popular discontent focuses on two members of the royal family who held key posts in the pre-invasion Cabinet, and who were retained in the government formed after Kuwait's liberation. If they remain, parliamentary protest is expected to be vocal, but "it would be unprecedented to jettison a member of the royal family under popular pressure," the diplomat says.

Potentially even more explosive are the moves parliament is expected to make to investigate and oversee the country's finances, traditionally a closely held secret. The state of Kuwaiti overseas investments, which have plummeted from $100 billion before the invasion to below $40 billion, is likely to be a prime issue for debate.

"If parliament is aggressive about opening the invasion file, and the government gets frightened, there could be a constitutional crisis," says political journalist Ayed Manna.

But few observers expect matters to reach that point. "The [invasion] file is not going to break the china and the crystal," the diplomat argues. "Neither the royal family nor the opposition seems to want that kind of confrontation."

Voting on Oct. 5 went smoothly, with a turnout of around 90 percent, officials said. Some veteran pro-democracy advocates, such as Ahmed al-Khateeb of the Kuwaiti Democratic Forum (KDF) and Hamad al-Jouan, whose outspoken defense of democracy is believed to have been the reason behind his near-fatal shooting last year, won in the election, while "service candidates" trading on ties to the royal family, generally did badly.

The most notable success, however, belonged to the Islamists, who increased their numbers from nine in the last parliament to 15. Their leaders have been anxious to assuage Western fears of a rise of fundamentalism, however, stressing their moderation.

"We aim to adjust all laws so that they do not conflict with sharia [Islamic law]," says Rasheed Abdul Khadr, an aide to Dr. Shatti.

"But sharia is not cutting off hands," he adds. "And we believe in small steps, not jumps."

Abdullah Nibarri, a KDF veteran who also won a parliamentary seat, says he expects the Islamists to work with the pro-democracy advocates to hold the government accountable to the National Assembly, and to widen the franchise beyond the "first class" males who are the only Kuwaitis currently allowed to vote.

Though the seven opposition groups will probably be able to muster a majority on such issues, shifting coalitions are expected to be the pattern, and most analysts here expect parliament to act cautiously.

"Kuwaitis really want parliament to use its power, but not to the point where the emir uses his power to dissolve the assembly," Dr. Manna says. "We voted for the restoration of the parliamentary system, and we don't want to lose it for whatever reason."

That sort of thinking has significance beyond Kuwait's own borders, in a region where free elections of any sort, however limited the suffrage, are unknown. At campaign meetings in recent weeks, visitors from Saudi Arabia have been common sights - political tourists savoring the sort of public political debate forbidden in their own country - and cassettes of campaign speeches have been circulating secretly in Saudi Arabia.

"This could be a watershed example after many botched attempts at democracy in the Middle East," Dr. Shayeji hopes. "We could be a light for the rest of the Arab world. But it has to succeed in order to make a difference."

of 5 stories this month > Get unlimited stories
You've read 5 of 5 free stories

Only $1 for your first month.

Get unlimited Monitor journalism.