Kuwait held non-party elections last weekend for its 50-member parliament, electing 21 new faces. The election for the first time of 4 women (out of 16 who ran) and a doubling of the Shiite representation to 9 from 5 have caused a stir among analysts. Likewise, the Salafi or Sunni fundamentalist groups lost substantial ground.
For Kuwaitis, the election was in part about economic issues. Kuwait is the world’s fifth-largest petroleum exporter and per capita one of the wealthier societies in the world. But the downturn in petroleum prices has hit hard.
US Gulf analyst Gregory Gause points out that there was a lot of continuity in the composition of the parliament, and that candidates not strongly associated with political factions (the Emir does not allow real parties but there are party-like groupings) did best. It was a revolt in favor of independents. He also says that parliamentary candidates tended not to take up foreign policy issues. In any case real power is in the hands of the prime minister, who is appointed by the Emir rather than being elected from parliament.
Kuwaiti analysts point out that the turnover was not exceptional compared to past elections, and that parliamentary gridlock may well continue.
I still think these Kuwait elections are significant. To have an Arab public vote in women as 8% of its representatives (and these women mostly have higher degrees; three are associated with the Liberal trend) is remarkable. Pakistan and Iraq have apportioned seats for women, but in Kuwait this development is voluntary. The US Senate is only 17% women.
Likewise, that the Kuwaiti Shiites, widely estimated to be a third of the population, are beginning to find a political voice vis-a-vis the Sunni fundamentalists is all to the good and will strengthen pluralism.
Gulf elections are tame affairs and elected officials seldom have much real power. But these parliaments are likely the matrix of future constitutional monarchies, and it would be a mistake to dismiss such an election, and such an outcome, as unimportant.
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