Kuwaiti opposition groups are aiming for a comeback in Parliament after a four-year election boycott, seeking to reverse what they see as the deteriorating political situation in the Gulf state.
More than 30 prominent Islamist and liberal opposition figures and former lawmakers have registered to run in the Nov 26 polls in the hope of forming a formidable political force.
Kuwait’s 50-seat Parliament is considered the most powerful of its kind in the Gulf Arab states thanks to its legislative and monitoring capacities. But most of the political clout in the oil-rich country still lies with the Amir, and a senior member of the Al-Sabah ruling family will be mandated to form a government regardless of the poll outcome.
The opposition groups boycotted two general elections in 2012 and 2013 in protest at a change in the voting system brought unilaterally by the government.
The opposition alliance said at the time that the change, later endorsed by Kuwait’s constitutional court, would allow the government to control Parliament and promote autocratic rule.
“The opposition has discovered that the boycott was not the right choice. In fact, they found that they have only isolated themselves,” political analyst Nasser Al-Abdali said.
“I think the boycott has considerably weakened the opposition as a whole,” Abdali, the head of Kuwait Society for the Promotion of Democracy, told AFP. Kuwait’s Amir Sheikh Sabah Al-Ahmad Al-Sabah last month dissolved Parliament over a dispute over a hike in petrol prices and called for snap polls.
The opposition held massive street protests in 2011 and 2012 demanding democratic reforms and an elected government in the emirate, which has a population of 4.3 million, of which 70 percent are foreigners.
But over the past two years, the strength of the opposition, which last controlled Parliament in February 2012, weakened considerably. The change in the voting system and the opposition boycott together helped elect a pro-government assembly that critics often described as a “rubber stamp” Parliament.
By boycotting the polls, the opposition sent an important message against the government’s “unconstitutional practices” that undermined true democracy, Islamist candidate Mohammad al-Dallal said.
“After four years (of opposition boycotts), the political situation has deteriorated, corruption became rife and both the government and Parliament failed to deal with major economic and security issues,” Dallal, a former opposition MP, told AFP.
“That is why the participation of the opposition became necessary to enforce reforms, confront corruption and strengthen democracy,” he said.
Former liberal opposition MP Abdulrahman Al-Anjari admitted the boycott failed to achieve its goals. “The boycott failed to abolish the government change in the voting system,” Anjari, who is running for office, said at a symposium this week.
“Parliament should not be left without opposition,” he said. But several opposition figures, including former three-time Parliament speaker Ahmad Al-Saadun, have decided to continue with the boycott saying participation will not solve any problem.
The opposition is rejoining polls while one of its prominent leaders and former MP Mussallam Al-Barrak is serving a two-year jail term for criticising the ruler in public. Kuwait has the Gulf’s oldest elected Parliament, but under the constitution the emir has extensive powers and can dissolve the legislature at the recommendation of the government.
Ruling family members occupy the key portfolios of defence, foreign and interior. While Parliament has the power to vote the prime minister and cabinet members out of office, the set-up means change is not easy.
Political analyst Mohammad Al-Ajmi believes the opposition will have a limited presence in the next Parliament, and “will not be a big or effective force.” “I think the next house will be dominated by pro-government lawmakers,” the sociology professor told AFP.
Abdali said he thinks that the opposition could have 10 MPs in the next Parliament but many of them will be new faces. The elections come as Kuwait, which sits on around seven percent of the world’s proven crude reserves, grapples with a sharp fall in oil prices that pushed it into a budget deficit after 16 years of surpluses.