Bloomberg News

Kuwait Election May Deepen Deadlock, Bolster Opposition

February 01, 2012

(Updates with comment from candidate in ninth paragraph.)

Feb. 1 (Bloomberg) -- Kuwait’s opposition, buoyed by a wave of street protests in the oil-rich monarchy, will seek to gain control of parliament in elections tomorrow and step up pressure for a handover of powers to elected officials.

The ballot follows months of unprecedented anti-government demonstrations sparked by corruption allegations against Sheikh Nasser Al-Mohammed Al-Sabah, who quit as prime minister of the Persian Gulf state in November. That prompted Emir Sheikh Sabah Al-Ahmad Al-Jaber Al-Sabah, his uncle, to dissolve parliament and call elections. The opposition has vowed to use its strength in the assembly to press for measures that would legalize political parties and let the elected assembly choose a government.

Under Kuwait’s political system the Cabinet is headed by the emir’s appointee, traditionally a senior member of the ruling family, and parliament has more ability to block its actions than shape them. Their disputes over how to share power have slowed economic growth and delayed key investment projects in OPEC’s fourth-biggest crude producer. The deadlock may deepen with a majority in the legislature for an opposition emboldened by the Arab Spring.

“The next prime minister will face a real challenge,” said Ayed al-Manna, a political analyst at Kuwait’s Public Authority for Applied Education. “In the first few months, he might find ways of dealing with the parliament, if he appoints more MPs as ministers, if he deals with them as political organizations.” In the longer term, it’s likely that “the same crisis will be reborn,” he said.

Repeated Clashes

About 400,000 people are entitled to vote tomorrow in a country where about a third of the population of 3.6 million is Kuwaiti. Of the 286 candidates running in five districts, 23 are women, including four lawmakers who were the first women to be elected when the last vote was held in May 2009. Tomorrow’s election will be the fourth in less than six years, as clashes between lawmakers and government led to repeated dissolutions.

The opposition may win 33 of the 50 seats, based on a synthesis of available opinion polls, said Talal Al-Kashti, who manages the Ittejahat Center, a Kuwait-based research group. In the previous parliament, the opposition averaged about 20 lawmakers.

Demonstrations calling for the premier to quit began in March, and the biggest on Sept. 21 drew several thousand people. Opposition lawmakers including Musallam Al-Barrak and Jamaan Al- Harbash regularly spoke at the rallies.

Payment Allegations

The protests were fueled by allegations that lawmakers received millions of dollars of unexplained payments and that Sheikh Nasser transferred public funds into his foreign bank accounts. The government of Sheikh Nasser, who was replaced by Sheikh Jaber Al-Mubarak Al-Sabah after his resignation, denied the accusations.

“We’re telling the family we are partners in power and public funds, and we are free,” Al-Qabas cited Al-Barrak as telling thousands of supporters at a rally late yesterday. The opposition candidate was referring to the ruling Al-Sabah family.

The opposition movement includes Islamists, liberals and independents, as well as youth groups who cite inspiration from the Arab protests that swept away longtime leaders in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya. Some groups demand a constitutional monarchy and elected government. Others say their focus is fighting corruption and are calling for political reform without amending the constitution.

Muslim Brotherhood

Candidates from the Muslim Brotherhood, similar to the group that dominates Egypt’s first parliament since the fall of Hosni Mubarak, and those representing Salafis, followers of an austere brand of Islam, are likely to gain seats in parliament, according to Al-Manna.

Islamist politicians may gain as many as 19 seats, up from seven in the last parliament, pollster al-Kashti said.

“Crises and youth political action usually bring a parliament with teeth,” he said in a phone interview. “This parliament will be strong and the Cabinet will have to extend a hand of cooperation to it.”

Tomorrow’s elections are the most expensive to date, according to Kuwaiti newspaper reports, which said statistics show that more than 200 million dinars ($721 million) has been spent by candidates this time. Candidates often hold their campaigns in large tents, offering lavish buffets to voters.

Big-Tent Politics

Candidate Mohammed Al-Juwaihel’s tent was burned down on Jan. 30, allegedly by tribesmen who took offense at some of his remarks. The Cabinet expressed “concern and dismay” with the incident and said it would take “all necessary action against practices that threaten national unity,” the state news agency KUNA reported yesterday.

The Interior Ministry said today it would arrest anyone who threatens security and stability after the headquarters of the privately owned Al-Watan television channel were stormed late yesterday by an angry crowd, reportedly over an interview with a candidate.

Kuwait created the Gulf’s first elected parliament half a century ago. Though still classified as an authoritarian regime in the Economist Intelligence Unit’s 2011 Democracy Index, it ranked as more democratic than the other five members of the Gulf Cooperation Council.

Its economy, though, has been the GCC’s slowest-growing in the past five years, according to the International Monetary Fund. It expanded at an average pace of 2.6 percent, compared with 4.2 percent in the United Arab Emirates, 5.7 percent in Bahrain and 18 percent in Qatar.

Private Borrowing

Private-sector borrowing grew at an average pace of 0.9 percent last year, the slowest for at least 17 years. The government’s failure to deliver on spending pledges leaves banks lacking in lending opportunities, according to Liz Martins, a senior economist at HSBC Bank Middle East Ltd.

Opposition candidates including veteran lawmaker Ahmed Al- Saadoun have accused the government of lagging in implementation of its $111 billion investment plan, which includes expanding oil and gas production and building transport networks, a new port and airport, and power stations.

Kuwait pumped 2.6 million barrels of crude a day in December, behind Saudi Arabia, Iraq and Iran among the 12 members of the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries.

--Editors: Ben Holland, Digby Lidstone.

To contact the reporters on this story: Fiona MacDonald in Kuwait at fmacdonald4@bloomberg.net.

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Shaji Mathew at shajimathew@bloomberg.net.


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