Kuwait, the only Gulf Arab nation with a strong legislature, has another gridlocked election 2023

After the judiciary dissolved the legislature earlier this year, Kuwaitis voted for the third time in three years on Tuesday, with little chance of resolving a lengthy impasse between the ruling family and aggressive legislators.

Only Kuwait has a democratically elected assembly that checks the royal family. In recent years, infighting has crippled the political system, preventing even basic improvements.

“People on the ground are not very optimistic right now about change, and that’s why you see this frustration and probably a low voter turnout and low number of people running,” said Dania Thafer, executive director of the Gulf International Forum, a Washington think tank.

Results are anticipated Wednesday after polls close at 8 p.m.

Eight months ago, 27 conservative Islamists and two women were elected to the 50-member legislature with a mandate for change. Some were ex-MPs.

In March, Kuwait’s Constitutional Court overturned the 2020 parliament’s dissolution. The Al Sabah family disbanded parliament again a few weeks later, setting up this week’s vote.

After the 2020 death of Sheikh Sabah Al Ahmad Al Sabah, a seasoned diplomat who controlled the kingdom for nearly 15 years, the royal family split, according to Kristin Diwan, senior resident scholar at the Arab Gulf States Institute in Washington.

Sheikh Nawaf Al Ahmad Al Sabah, his ill half-brother, replaced the 91-year-old, with Crown Prince Sheikh Meshal Al Ahmed Al Jaber Al Sabah running the country. Both are 80, and the succession after Sheikh Meshal is unknown.

Sheikh Ahmad Nawaf Al Sabah, the present emir’s son, became prime minister in 2022 but has drawn criticism.

Diwan said the top lacks direction and enthusiasm. “There is an overall vacuum where other political institutions and social forces kind of take advantage and step into that gap.”

The emir chooses the prime minister and Cabinet and can dissolve parliament at will. However, parliament can approve or oppose legislation and question and remove ministers. No parties.

Two former parliamentary speakers want to return.

The 2020 assembly was chaired by Marzouq al-Ghanim, a renowned businessman from a strong family. He recently called the prime minister a “danger to the country,” further eroding his authority.

Diwan claimed al-Ghanim “was willing to use all the tools that he had within the parliament to really concentrate power… in a way that was more authoritarian” as speaker. She said his severe criticism of the prime minister, a senior governing family member, was “really striking.”

He will likely face Ahmed al-Saadoun, a seasoned politician who united a wide range of opposition legislators in parliament last year. They have advocated for debt relief for consumer loans, which the government considers economically unsustainable.

Kuwait has 1.5 million residents and the sixth biggest oil reserves in the world. However, many believe the government has underinvested in education, healthcare, and other services.

Opposition politicians have also advocated for election reforms to get more women and young people into the assembly, including a return to a system where district voters may vote for several candidates.

“If people have only one vote, it forces political blocs to make a lot of difficult decisions about who to run,” said London School of Economics and Political Science scholar Courtney Freer.

“It makes it harder for women candidates, who are already disadvantaged,” she remarked.

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