Islamist-led opposition wins majority in Kuwait’s parliamentary vote

Video: From early on Wednesday, men and women queued outside separate schools to select up to four candidates, bringing an end to a week of campaign rallies and rhetoric.

Kuwait’s Islamist-led opposition won the majority seats in a snap election for the wealthy Gulf state’s fourth parliament in less than six years, while women candidates did not win a single seat, according to official results released on Friday.

Sunni Islamists took 23 seats compared with just nine in the dissolved parliament, while liberals were the big losers, winning only two places against five previously.

No women were elected, with the four female MPs of the previous parliament all losing their seats.

Voters punished pro-government MPs, reducing them to a small minority, especially 13 former MPs who were questioned by the public prosecutor over corruption charges.

The opposition scored strongly in the two tribal-dominated constituencies, winning 18 of the 20 available seats. Kuwait is divided into five electoral districts, with each electing 10 lawmakers.

Minority Shiites who form about 30 percent of the native population saw their representation reduced to seven MPs from nine, with four of them from Islamist groups.

The snap polls were held after the ruler of the oil-rich Gulf state dissolved parliament following youth-led protests and after bitter disputes between the opposition MPs and the government.

Sixty-two percent of Kuwaitis cast their ballots on Thursday, up slightly from 58 percent in the previous election in 2009.

Opposition candidates and ex-MPs who spearheaded a movement to oust Sheikh Nasser al-Mohammed al-Sabah as prime minister were tipped to expand their influence in parliament, riding a wave of frustration at the impasse and perceived corruption.

“There’s obviously more traction now for the opposition groups. You have kind of a momentum,” said Shahin Shamsabadi, senior adviser at the Risk Advisory Group.

That anger came to a head in November when protesters led by opposition MPs stormed the assembly demanding the resignation of Sheikh Nasser, whom they accused of graft.

They got their way soon afterwards when the emir dismissed his cabinet -- the seventh line-up in six years.

An investigation by the public prosecutor into notably large deposits in the bank accounts of 13 pro-government parliamentarians gave a further boost to the opposition, which said the sums were bribes paid by ministers to MPs for their backing in the assembly.

Antagonism

But the victory for the opposition is unlikely to end the antagonism, analysts say.

“The opposition win will not resolve ongoing political and social tensions in Kuwait,” the Eurasia Group said in a note. It forecast that the opposition would take as many as 30 of the 50 seats up for grabs.

The opposition is not a unified force in Kuwait, where a web of tribal and sectarian loyalties undercut most other affinities. A ban on political parties makes religious and kinship ties the easiest and most effective way of mobilizing support.

Shiite candidates lamented last year’s crackdown on their co-religionists in Bahrain, while Sunni candidates warned of Shiite Iran’s regional ambitions.

On Monday, tribesmen burned the election tent of a pro-government candidate, Mohammed al-Juweihel, after remarks deemed derogatory to a Bedouin tribe. They also stormed offices of a TV station for hosting a pro-government candidate.

Candidates belonging to the Mutairi tribe have already threatened to bring a grilling motion against Prime Minister Sheikh Jaber al-Mubarak al-Sabah if they are elected unless Juweihel is barred from the parliament.

But while parliament has the power to initiate legislation, cabinet members also vote, giving the government a bloc it can use to dilute opposition or swing a majority in the assembly.

And crucially, reforms depend on the will of the al-Sabah family, which has ruled Kuwait since the 18th century.

From early on Wednesday, men and women queued outside separate schools to select up to four candidates, bringing an end to a week of campaign rallies and rhetoric.

“The situation cannot remain as it was,” opposition candidate Faisel al-Mislem told hundreds of supporters at a campaign event in the run-up to the vote. “If this election is just a game of musical chairs, then it’s a waste of time.”

About 30 international and 300 local observers have been allowed to monitor the election for the first time.

Kuwait had a population of 3.6 million as of mid-2011, but 68 percent of those are foreigners with Kuwaitis themselves numbering 1.17 million.

Kuwait says it sits on 10 percent of global crude reserves and pumps around 3.0 million barrels of oil a day. Thanks to high prices, it has amassed more than $300 billion (227,400 billion euros) in assets over the past decade

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