Financial crisis, pandemic to cast their shadow over Kuwait’s forthcoming elections

Observers expect the Islamists, including the Muslim Brotherhood and the Salafists, to strengthen their presence in the opposition in the next Kuwaiti parliament.
Saturday 07/11/2020
A candidate for the upcoming Kuwaiti parliamentary election talks on the phone at the Department of Elections in Kuwait City on the first day of candidate registration, on October 26.( AFP)
A candidate for the upcoming Kuwaiti parliamentary election talks on the phone at the Department of Elections in Kuwait City on the first day of candidate registration, on October 26.(AFP)

KUWAIT –Officially, 395 candidates will be competing for 50 seats in the coming parliamentary elections in Kuwait this December 5.

These elections are taking place in exceptional circumstances. They will be the first in the era of the new Emir of the country, Sheikh Nawaf Al-Ahmad Al-Jaber Al-Sabah, who came to power last September following the death of the late Sheikh Sabah Al-Ahmad. They will also be taking place in exceptional health measures dictated by the coronavirus pandemic.

However, the most prominent feature in this difficult Kuwaiti phase remains the financial crisis resulting from the fall of oil prices. The country is heading towards borrowing in order to deal with a serious budget deficit, because barring that option, the Kuwaiti state will be unable to pay the salaries of its employees, according to previous statements by Kuwaiti Finance Minister Barrak al-Shitan.

The small Gulf state is definitely going through one of its worst economic crises, amid expectations that the public budget deficit will reach $45.8 billion in the current fiscal year ending next March.

The financial crisis in Kuwait has turned into a reality that requires urgent solutions in any way possible, even by borrowing, which, not so long ago, has never been envisaged as an option in light of country’s sizeable oil revenues.

On Thursday, the Kuwaiti Court of Accounts hinted at the inevitability of borrowing to meet the worsening budget deficit, calling for the need to accompany that with reforms of structural imbalances in the economy.

Observers expect that these unusual circumstances will be casting their shadows over the upcoming elections and will contribute to shaping the composition of the new parliament, as the crisis gives special credibility to the opposition’s proposals, especially the Islamist ones, and confirms what that opposition considers a chronic governmental failure in managing the affairs of the state and in the proper utilization of its large resources from the oil revenues during the years of plenty. Moreover, and still according to the opposition, the prospect of state’s inability to meet its financial obligations reflects the extent of corruption pervading the state apparatus, which is responsible for the misappropriation of huge sums of public money over many years.

As is known, relations between the successive governments and parliaments in Kuwait have always been tense. This means that the opposition’s control of the next Kuwaiti parliament will result in a “fiercer” parliament in its struggle against the government, with representatives more eager to subpoena ministers and asking them to account for their actions. In the past, this mechanism has been abused by parliamentarians wanting to settle personal or partisan or even tribal scores with the ministers, to such an extent that it had led on several occasions to dismissing governments and parliaments, and holding early elections.

In the current difficult circumstances, Kuwait cannot withstand another episode of this scenario.  The new ruling team lacks the charisma of the former emir, the late Sheikh Sabah Al-Ahmad, who, through his conciliatory character, was able to settle many a political conflict and undo the effect of personal, factional and partisan conflicts. In spite of that, his era was marked by several interruptions, as the legislative and executive authorities during his reign were unable to work in a continuous manner until the end of their legal terms.

At the end of his reign, Sheikh Sabah had hinted at using his vast powers to control chaos and limit the authority of the National Assembly over the government by restricting the right to use parliamentary interrogation, but he had refrained from doing it. His successor, Sheikh Nawaf, is not expected to be able to implement that scenario.

Observers expect that Islamists, including the Muslim Brothers and the Salafists, will be able to strengthen their presence in the opposition in the next Kuwaiti parliament, given the current tendency among Kuwaitis to be open to the Islamists’ proposals in light of the current crisis.

Local media has noted the overwhelming majority of male candidates in the upcoming Kuwaiti elections, with women representing only 9% of the candidates in the race.

Observers believe that the fact that there was only one female representative in the 2016 parliament is indicative of a new wave of conservatism in Kuwaiti society.

It is not also excluded that the COVID-19 pandemic will have direct repercussions on the upcoming parliamentary elections, especially in the area of their execution.

The local Al-Rai newspaper quoted sources,it described as well-informed, as saying that the government’s hinting at reinstating the stay-at-home measure to reduce coronavirus infections, not only threatens the country’s economy, but will impact the elections as well, as more voters will be reluctant to go out and vote.

The same sources added that the measure, if adopted, would not only have an effect on reducing the number of COVID-19 contagions, but would also bring down the number of voters to the bare minimum, most likely resulting in preventing new faces from reaching the National Assembly. According to the same newspaper, the sources also warned against turning the preventive health measure into an “attempt to indirectly interfere in the elections.”