The waltz of parliaments and governments never seems to stop in Kuwait. For the seventh time since 2012, voters in this wealthy Gulf state are again called to the polls on Tuesday, June 6, to choose their deputies.
Because this is one of the peculiarities of this small emirate in the north of the Arabian Peninsula: unlike the countries of this region dominated by authoritarian regimes, Kuwait has had a parliamentary system since 1962.
"It is by far the most participatory regime in the Arabian Peninsula with two pillars: parliament and state," Alexandre Kazerouni, a lecturer at the École normale supérieure, told France 24.
While power remains concentrated in the hands of the Al-Sabah family, which has ruled Kuwait for 250 years, the deputies, theoretically elected for four years, have broad prerogatives, not hesitating to hold to account ministers belonging to the royal family accused of mismanagement or even corruption.
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But this incessant tug-of-war between the executive and parliamentarians led to considerable instability and Kuwaiti political life has been punctuated in recent years by repeated dissolutions of the Assembly. The latest one dates back to April and follows the Constitutional Court's invalidation of the previous election due to irregularities.
The Court then ruled in favour of restoring the previous Parliament, resulting from the 2020 elections. What these two general elections have in common is the victory of the opposition, which for a decade boycotted the votes to denounce the interference of the executive, in the hands of the royal family.
In Kuwait, political parties are neither banned nor legally recognized, but many groups, including Sunni Islamists, act as political formations and try to extract compromises.
"Within Parliament, there are no clearly identified parties but three major blocs representing the interests of three social categories," said Alexandre Kazerouni. "Of the 50 seats in Parliament, 16 are primarily reserved for government ministers. Then there is a bloc representing the middle class and the families of businessmen", from the great merchant families of the early twentieth century, "who hold ministries, in solidarity with the middle class".
"Finally, there is a third block manufactured in the 1970s and 80s by the ruling family and composed of very conservative naturalized Saudis, whose role is to weaken the second block," the expert continues.
In this complex power game, the question of the distribution of the oil windfall is a recurring subject of quarrels. A member of the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC), the emirate produces about 3 million barrels per day. Colossal revenues that allow the State to avoid collecting taxes and to provide essential public services almost free of charge.
But in a context of economic difficulties linked to fluctuations in oil prices and the consequences of Covid-19, tensions have increased between the royal family and the rest of the population.
In 2022, "legislators had submitted a bill for the state to take charge of citizens' consumer loans, a very expensive plan that the government did not want," said Nicolas Keraudren, RFI's regional correspondent in Dubai.
"The blockages of Parliament are also linked to the ability of the rest of the population to oppose the wishes of the ruling family, with at the heart of the debate the issue of corruption and the appropriation of the public domain, which has taken on crazy proportions in the other countries of the peninsula," says Alexandre Kazerouni.
However, this clash between rival factions is beginning to tire the Kuwaitis. "There is a wave of frustration because the population sees the same scenarios repeating themselves. This could lead to high abstention, either out of desperation or to express silent and peaceful opposition to certain political practices," said Abdulaziz al-Anjari, director of the Kuwait-based think-tank Reconnaissance.
An electoral fatigue that is reflected in the number of registered candidates, the lowest for legislative elections in more than 20 years. A total of 207 candidates, including 13 women, are running.
"What is at stake in these elections is also the ability of this participatory regime to survive in a regional environment where political participation is reduced everywhere in the name of reform," said Alexandre Kazerouni.
Fearing mass abstention, the authorities unfurled large banners in the streets of the capital to call on citizens to go to the polls. "We must wake up to this great frustration," said activist and university professor Sheikha al-Jassem, who deplores a "paralysis" of political life slowing down the development of the country, despite "promises" from the government.
The country's political instability has largely cooled the appetites of foreign investors. In fifteen years, Kuwait has fallen from second to fourth place among the Gulf economies, notes Le Figaro.
These tensions between the executive and parliament have also hampered the reforms that this poorly diversified economy needs. A standstill that contrasts with its powerful neighbors, the other five members of the Gulf Cooperation Council.
Also rich in hydrocarbons, Saudi Arabia, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates have embarked in recent years on all-out projects to diversify their economies and attract investors.
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Faced with the dynamism of his competitors, the 85-year-old EmirNawaf al-Ahmad al-Jaber al-Sabah, who has withdrawn from political life in favor of the crown prince, is struggling to offer a vision of the future for Kuwait.
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