Kuwaiti Voters Go to the Polls Amid Political Gridlock and Waning Optimism
Kuwait, the only Gulf Arab country with a democratically elected assembly, witnessed its citizens casting their ballots for the third time in as many years. The political landscape in Kuwait has been plagued by ongoing gridlock between the ruling family and assertive lawmakers, resulting in a lack of progress on vital reforms. Dissatisfaction with the political system and a sense of dwindling hope have led to low voter turnout and a limited number of candidates participating in the elections. This article examines the current political climate in Kuwait and the challenges the country faces in achieving meaningful change.
Political Paralysis and Frustration
The Kuwaiti political system, while unique in the Gulf region for its elected assembly, has been crippled by internal disputes and has struggled to enact necessary reforms. Infighting among lawmakers has created a state of political paralysis, leaving the country unable to address even fundamental issues. Dania Thafer, the executive director at the Gulf International Forum, highlights the prevailing lack of optimism among Kuwaiti citizens, leading to frustration and a subsequent decrease in voter participation.
Election Results Awaited
The most recent election, held a mere eight months ago, brought about a renewed mandate for change, with the introduction of 27 new lawmakers, including conservative Islamists and two women. However, the Constitutional Court’s decision to annul the decree dissolving the previous parliament, coupled with the ruling Al Sabah family’s subsequent dissolution of the restored parliament, set the stage for the current elections. The voting concluded at 8 p.m. local time, and the results were anticipated to be announced the following day.
Internal Divisions and Leadership Vacuum
The turmoil within Kuwait’s political landscape can be attributed in part to divisions within the ruling family following the death of Sheikh Sabah Al Ahmad Al Sabah in 2020. The succession process resulted in Sheikh Nawaf Al Ahmad Al Sabah taking over as the emir, while Crown Prince Sheikh Meshal Al Ahmed Al Jaber Al Sabah assumed day-to-day rule. Both leaders are in their 80s, and the line of succession beyond Sheikh Meshal remains unclear. The appointment of Sheikh Ahmad Nawaf Al Sabah, the current emir’s son, as prime minister in 2022 has also faced significant criticism, further contributing to the prevailing leadership vacuum.
Opportunities Amidst Uncertainty
The lack of a clear direction and energy from the top has created an opportunity for other political institutions and social forces to step into the gap, according to Kristin Diwan, a senior resident scholar at the Arab Gulf States Institute in Washington. Kuwait’s emir holds the power to appoint the prime minister and the Cabinet and dissolve parliament at will. However, lawmakers possess the authority to approve or block legislation, question ministers, and call for their removal. The absence of political parties further contributes to the complexity of Kuwait’s political landscape.
Returning Figures and Calls for Reform
Two former parliamentary speakers, Marzouq al-Ghanim and Ahmed al-Saadoun, are contending for the influential office in the current elections. Al-Ghanim, known for his authoritarian approach during his tenure as speaker, has recently criticized the prime minister, further undermining his authority. Al-Saadoun, on the other hand, succeeded in uniting various opposition lawmakers in the previous parliament, advocating for policies that would distribute the country’s oil wealth more widely. Kuwait’s immense oil reserves and wealth have not been adequately invested in essential sectors like education and healthcare, prompting calls for reforms.
The Need for Electoral and Social Reforms
Opposition figures are advocating for electoral reforms that would enhance women’s and young people’s representation in the assembly. Some propose a return to a previous voting system, which allowed voters to choose more than one candidate in their district. Such changes aim to encourage political blocs to make difficult decisions and facilitate the inclusion of marginalized groups, particularly women. Researchers, such as Courtney Freer from the London School of Economics and Political Science, emphasize that a single-vote system places additional challenges on women candidates who are already disadvantaged.
Kuwait’s democratic process, though distinct within the Gulf region, has been stifled by political gridlock and a lack of progress on essential reforms. The recent elections marked a third attempt in as many years to break the impasse between the ruling family and assertive lawmakers. However, internal divisions within the ruling family and a leadership vacuum have created an environment ripe for frustration and political stagnation. As Kuwait seeks stability and development, electoral and social reforms are needed to address the country’s challenges and bridge the gap between the ruling family and the citizenry.