In a world where democracy is being buffeted from all sides by geopolitical developments, and where governments are increasingly espousing authoritarian tactics, it is refreshing to witness that democracy despite its warts and wrinkles still continues to flourish in Kuwait. Last week, the country once again affirmed its commitment to the principles of representative democracy, with elections to the 17th legislative session of Parliament being held on Thursday, 29 September.

Final results to the 50-seat National Assembly were announced on Friday. His Highness the Amir Sheikh Nawaf Al-Ahmad Al-Jaber Al-Sabah in his cable of congratulations to the newly elected members of Parliament, expressed his happiness in the trust vested in them by citizens, and wished the new lawmakers the best in their new responsibilities in serving the country. His Highness the Crown Prince Sheikh Mishal Al-Ahmad Al-Jaber Al-Sabah also sent similar congratulatory cables to the newly elected members of Parliament.

As polling drew to a close at 8pm on Thursday there was a collective sigh of relief among everyone involved in the electoral process. Organizers and supervisors of the elections, including representatives from the Ministries of Interior and Justice, were understandably proud that the election process had gone through without any major glitches. Election results from the five constituencies that began trickling out from early hours on Friday morning, were announced in full by mid-afternoon.

Opposition supporters were elated with the election outcome; with 19 of the 21 former opposition lawmakers who competed in the 2022 election being reelected. Also, giving a further boost to the opposition was the return of veteran politician and former speaker of the National Assembly, Ahmad Al-Saadoun, to the National Assembly. The 87-year old, multiple-time parliamentarian and House Speaker won with a thumping majority from the Third Constituency.

In contrast, there was gloom and a sense of foreboding among supporters of the government, with many of the ‘pro-government’ faction in the outgoing parliament being rejected by voters, or deciding not to contest the 2022 elections. The new assembly now has 16 new faces, with 23 members of the dissolved assembly and 11 former lawmakers from previous assemblies making their way back to parliament.

While as many as 27 members of the dissolved house are no longer in the new parliament, with 20 of them losing their bid for re-election and seven opting not to contest the polls, including the previous parliament speaker Marzouq Al Ghanim.

Notwithstanding the emotions expressed or unexpressed at the election outcome by citizens and residents, there is no denying that the 2022 elections once again demonstrated the triumph of democracy in Kuwait. The polls reiterated the vibrancy and resilience of democracy in the country, and how, despite the shaky democratic shoots visible to all, the roots of democracy appear to have taken hold and now run deep in society.

The 2022 elections also underlined that the polity in Kuwait has ample space for inclusiveness and divergent discourses. Voters cast their ballot in favor of politicians who encompass diametrically opposing views, including Islamists, liberals, conservatives, progressives and other flavors. Also, despite the country’s reputation as a patriarchal society that favors traditional views on gender parity, the electorate chose to send in two women representatives.

However, despite women making up over 51 percent of the registered electorate and many women entering the election fray in previous elections, only a handful have made their way into parliament. The change in attitude of voters demonstrated by electing two women this time around is certainly laudatory. To put the women’s representation in the 2022 elections in perspective, it is worth noting that while 15 percent of the men who contested the elections won a seat, 10 percent of the 22 women who entered the poll-fray also made it to parliament.

The holding of yet another successful election in Kuwait is certainly a welcome development, especially as the latest report on the global state of democracies shows that the number of backsliding democracies has doubled in the past decade and now account for a quarter of the world’s population. More than two-thirds of the world’s population now live in backsliding democracies or autocratic regimes. Not a very comforting thought for those who believe in democracy and the principles that it espouses.

Turnout in the 2022 parliamentary elections was high, with many candidates who had decided to sit-out elections in the past deciding to compete, assured by promises of the Crown Prince that the authorities would not interfere in the election process. Crown Prince Sheikh Mishal reiterated this commitment in his official announcement of the Amiri decree dissolving parliament in early August.

The Crown Prince had stated that there would be no interference by the authorities in elections to the new parliament. “We will not interfere in the people’s choices for their representatives, nor will we interfere with the choices of the next National Assembly in electing its speaker or its committees,” said the Crown Prince. He added, “Parliament will be the master of its decisions, and we will not support one faction at the expense of another. We will stand at equi-distance from everyone.”

On Thursday, following the end of polling, His Highness the Crown Prince had termed the successful holding of elections in a proficient and transparent manner as a “celebration of Kuwait’s democratic spirit, and its citizen’s devotion to the principles of democracy and the spirit of responsibility and cooperation to exercise their constitutional right that characterizes our society.” He beseeched God Almighty to bestow the hands of grace on all who serve this country under the leadership of His Highness the Amir Sheikh Nawaf Al-Ahmad Al-Jaber Al-Sabah.

The snap polls to the 17th legislative term of the National Assembly were necessitated after the Crown Prince accepted the resignation of the previous cabinet and announced the dissolution of parliament in June. This followed political infighting and disputes between legislators and the government, which Sheikh Mishal described as being contrary to the interest of national security. The political instability has also led to many economic reforms being shelved due to the lack of consensus among lawmakers and the government.

Announcing the official dissolution of parliament on state TV in early August, His Highness the Crown Prince stated: “To rectify the political scene involving a lack of harmony and cooperation, in addition to differences, conflicts, personal interests, failure to accept others, practices and behaviors that undermine national unity, it had become necessary to resort to the people who represent the destiny, extension, survival and existence of the state, so that they could rectify the path in a way that serves their supreme interests.”

The deadlock with the previous cabinet had also delayed the approval of the state budget for the fiscal year 2022-23. The budget, which has to be voted on before November, had set spending at KD23.65 billion compared with KD23.48 billion for the 2021/2022 budget. The negligible hike in spending despite the windfall revenues for soaring global oil prices is indicative that the government is to remain committed to cutting spending and rationalizing expenditure. Implementing this constriction on spending could prove difficult in the coming days, with the opposition in parliament making a strong showing and desiring to thank their electorate with yet another dollop of government largesse.

Kuwait has held 18 elections to the National Assembly since the first parliamentary elections were held in 1962. Many of the elections held in the past were snap polls prompted by dissolutions of a sitting government due to dissonance between the elected representatives and the appointed government. While the frequent elections could be construed by some people as a weakness of democracy as practiced in Kuwait, it could also be interpreted by others as indicative of the dynamism of democracy in the country.

Voting in the 2022 elections, which was limited to only around 796,000 eligible voters out of a total population of over 4.5 million, would fall short of a widely accepted definition of democratic elections as being competitive, periodic, inclusive, definitive elections in which the chief decision-makers in a government are selected by citizens.

With participation limited to only eligible voters, the cornerstone of democracy in Kuwait is seen by many as being wobbly. Moreover, even this limited representation is skewed by voting that often takes place along sectarian and tribal lines, with little consideration if any given to the merits or demerits of a candidate.

This sectarian or tribal allegiances has over the years diluted the effectiveness of parliament in implementing urgently needed reforms and solutions to other economic and social challenges. Nevertheless, as exemplified by the latest election results, ballots continue to be cast largely on familial, tribal, sectarian, and friendships, without any attention given to the electoral agendas of the candidates.

According to the United Nations Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR), participation and inclusiveness in political and public life are important in the promotion of democratic governance, and essential to eliminate marginalization and discrimination in society. Additionally, universal suffrage is inseparably linked to other human rights, including freedom of opinion and expression, the rule of law, social inclusion and economic development, and, in general, the advancement of all human rights.

Notwithstanding the obvious democratic shortcomings, the electoral process in Kuwait, when held up against the dearth of such democratic practices in the region, and in the wider Arab world, is certainly cause for celebration. But these democratic underpinnings are also cause for careful deliberation. No matter how the recurring general elections and democratic practices in the country are viewed by the public in Kuwait and by outside observers, there is no doubt that this political instability has shackled Kuwait’s ability to attract foreign investments or to realize its full economic and social potential.

Given its relatively small population and stupendous wealth from hydrocarbon revenues, it is certainly disconcerting that the country’s enviable democratic underpinnings have hampered Kuwait from mirroring the same economic dynamism exhibited by its neighbors in the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) states. Apparently, when faced with a choice between democracy and development, Kuwait has opted for the former at the expense of the latter. But this does not necessarily have to be framed as a dilemma, Kuwait could have both, democracy and development, if lawmakers are willing to put aside their differences and parochialism and work for the good of the country and all its people.

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