Euro-Gulf Information Centre
Kuwait’s Parliamentary Elections 2020: Topics, Trends and Challenges
by Nikola Zukalová
Kuwait’s parliamentary elections on 5 December, the first under the country’s new Emir, Nawaf Al-Ahmad Al-Jaber Al-Sabah, are less than one week away and, like in many other countries, the impact of COVID-19 pandemic is profound and visible. Each of the five electoral districts will elect 10 MPs to represent them in the unicameral National Assembly, of which at least one will be appointed as Minister. Strict measures of social distancing and wearing masks will be observed on election day. Provisions are also in place to ensure that patients infected with COVID-19 can cast their ballots and the government sought to allow Kuwaitis living abroad to vote for the first time, along with significantly increasing registration fees for the candidates (from 50 to 500 Kuwaiti dinars). Due to COVID-19 restrictions, such as the ban on physical gatherings and rallies, the candidates had to rely entirely on modern technologies and social media for political campaigning, which significantly reduced opportunities to influence voters by anything more than their election programmes. Although the total number of candidates slightly dropped compared to 2016 (321), there are significantly more registered voters and more women decided to run (27), raising hopes for increased female participation in the parliament—although, the bar is fairly low because there is now only one female MP. Despite this positive development, female candidates still represent only a fraction of the candidates and continue to face significant obstacles and prejudice, drawing more attention to gender-related issues, which Kuwait will have to address sooner or later if it wants to ensure social and economic development. Those issues are however likely to be overshadowed by the lingering economic crisis and perhaps even more downplayed with Islamists’ gains.
New Leadership and Managing Conflicts between Executive and Legislative
Of the six GCC countries’ parliaments, Kuwait’s is considered to be the most powerful in terms of its competencies and, although political parties are not allowed as in the rest of the GCC, candidates can run for political associations. In 2020, all but 7 MPs of the incumbent Assembly seek reelection and it is expected that the opposition will repeat the success of the previous election, when it secured almost half of the seats (24) in the 50-member Assembly. The big winners were Islamists, particularly the Muslim Brotherhood-affiliated Islamic Constitutional Movement (ICM) and the Salafis. It will be interesting to see whether the conservative trend will continue, especially as many religious hardliners have sought to score political points with some recent events, such as the heated debate over French caricatures of prophet Mohammed and remarks by France’s President, Emmanuel Macron, about Islam in crisis, prompting calls for boycotting French products; promoting and supporting the Palestinian cause amid UAE’s and Bahrain’s normalisation with Israel; and championing opposition to the government mismanagement and high-level corruption. The results of Islamists and the Muslim Brotherhood in particular, will be interesting because some high-level officials in Kuwait’s new leadership, such as Crown Prince Mishal Al-Ahmad Al-Jaber Al-Sabah, former Deputy Chief of the National Guard and Chief of State Security, are not particularly fond of them.
Kuwait’s relatively lively political scene has been marked by conflicts between the Cabinet, appointed by the Emir and the elected Assembly which periodically results in parliament’s dissolution and Cabinet reshuffles—the latest example being the Cabinet’s resignation in November 2019. Between 2012-2016, Kuwait held four parliamentary elections and the 2016-2020 legislature is one of the rare occasions when the Kuwaiti parliament actually completed its four-year mandate. Such internal political conflicts will represent a challenge for Emir Nawaf as even the late Emir Sabah, known for his conciliatory efforts, was unable to resolve them all. Emir Nawaf will have to find a way to manage tensions between the two branches to navigate Kuwait’s precarious economic situation. His choice of Prime Minister and the new Cabinet following the election results will be crucial for those efforts and will indicate the new leadership’s course. The conflicts between executive and legislative and frequent changes have at times drew attention away from more pressing issues related to the country’s development and stalled progress, which Kuwait cannot afford at this point. Should the Islamist opposition strengthen its position in the parliament, the situation could be further complicated.
Kuwait’s Lingering Economic Challenges
Similar to the rest of the world, Kuwait’s economy suffered under COVID-19 restrictions and a long economic shutdown, which struck a blow to its private sector and strained public finances. As one of the world’s top oil producers, Kuwait relies on oil for 88% of its public revenues and is therefore sensitive to oil market fluctuations such as the ones in early 2020, which saw the oil prices plunge to US$25 per barrel, less than a half of what Kuwait’s budget counted on. Additionally, Kuwait also has to allocate increasingly more funds to oil extraction as it needs to exercise more efforts to reach deeper reserves. Yet, the largest item of the state budget remains salaries of employees in the public sector, where the majority of Kuwaiti nationals work, and subsidies.
Facing the economic fallout of the pandemic and low oil prices, Kuwait’s government had to reduce expenditures and introduced a budget with a record deficit of 14 billion Kuwaiti dinars (KD), which is a sharp increase compared to the 2018/2019 fiscal year, when Kuwait managed to decrease its public debt by more than 30% to KD3.35 billion thanks to higher oil prices and non-oil revenues. Amid this bleak outlook, the estimated 2020/2021 revenues were almost halved from the initial KD14.8 billion in January to KD7.5 billion in September. Kuwait’s US$527 billion sovereign wealth fund is among the world’s largest but the government needs National Assembly’s approval to increase the debt ceiling limit and borrow from international investors to cover the deficit. However, the parliament has been reluctant to release billions for the government — particularly due to a series of high-level corruption and mismanagement cases — and demand structural reforms that would address the high expenditures on state institutions. Conflict over funding caused deadlock between the government and the parliament as parliamentary authorisation to refinance or sell debt expired in 2017 and it recently refused the new public debt law proposed by the government that would allow it to borrow KD20 billion. As the government cannot access the assets in the US$489 billion Future Generations Fund without parliament’s authorisation, it relies on the second segment of the sovereign wealth fund, the US$38 billion General Reserve Fund, which acts as its treasury and is nearing depletion. Kuwait’s Finance Minister, Barrak Al-Sheetan, warned that without the public debt law the country would soon run out of funds to pay state employees’ salaries. The thinning liquidity reserves were among the reasons that led the Moody’s to downgrade the country’s debt rating in September 2020 for the first time.
Candidates’ Top Priorities
COVID-19 thrust economic topics to the forefront of the debate and have featured prominently in the candidates’ campaigns. Following the global trend, populism is also visible, particularly regarding preserving and improving citizens’ living standards amid worsening economic situation, promising to reject plans that would negatively affect taxes, subsidies or public services’ fees. Some candidates focused on the need for economic reforms and diversification plans, housing and employment, while some decided to take a different route, such as one candidate that placed culture and arts — topics usually sidelined in election campaigns — as a priority. One of the key issues also continues to be corruption and mismanagement of public funds, which has gained more attention in the past years and will inevitably come under more scrutiny as people’s economic situation deteriorates with the pandemic. Hundreds of Kuwaitis have expressed their discontent in a large anti-corruption protest outside the parliament in November 2019. Another topic that evoked passion amid the pandemic and its increasing strain on the economy is related to demographic situation and “Kuwaitisation” plans that seek to redress the expats-to-nationals ratio, which is currently around 70% to 30%. Kuwait’s National Assembly recently unanimously approved a population restructuring law seeking to reduce the number of expatriates, who predominantly work in the private sector. Some candidates warned that those plans are unrealistic given Kuwait’s low fertility rate and the lack of Kuwaitis’ interest in certain jobs. Apart from the public debt bill, Kuwaitisation and economic diversification plans, the future parliament and Cabinet will also have to oversee the implementation of the 5% Value Added Tax (VAT) in 2021.
COVID-19 and its economic fallout accentuated Kuwait’s deep rooted structural issues. The country is now at a crossroad and navigating it out of its economic conundrum towards long-term development, prosperity and progress will require Kuwait’s new parliament and Cabinet to cooperate and compromise across the board.
1 December 2020
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