Kuwait Islamists Ride Opposition Election Surge

Published February 3, 2012 9:54AM (EST)

KUWAIT CITY (AP) — Opposition groups that include hard-line Islamists have taken control of Kuwait's parliament, according to election results Friday, in a rise that could limit the hands of pro-Western rulers in dealings such as U.S. plans to boost its military presence in the oil-rich Gulf nation.

The conservative surge also left the 50-seat assembly without any women lawmakers.

The outcome highlights the growing pressures on Kuwait's ruling family after months of political upheavals that included charges of high-level corruption and outrage over crackdowns on anti-government demonstrations and other dissenting voices.

Although Kuwait's rulers retain full control over key government posts, the country's parliament is one of the few elected bodies in the Gulf that can challenge policies and bring no-confidence motions against officials. The strengthened opposition could now exert even more sway over the emir and his inner circle over issues ranging from foreign policies to social rules, such as proposals to keep women from competing in international sporting events.

Official results from Thursday's election gave 14 seats to Islamists that share many views with groups such as Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood, which made strong gains in the first elections after the fall of former President Hosni Mubarak. Tribal-based lawmakers also took 20 seats in Kuwait — giving conservative-leaning blocs a clear majority.

At least nine seats went to liberals and seven to Shiite lawmakers, who had generally sided with the Sunni-led ruling family, according to official results.

But that still leaves only a minority of the seats firmly in the hands of pro-government lawmakers. The previous parliament was about evenly split between opposition groups and government allies.

The opposition gains also brought an unexpected blow to women, who had four seats in the parliament that was dissolved in December. None of the 23 women candidates — including the four incumbents — won seats.

Kuwait's political tensions have roots long before the Arab Spring uprisings that began last year, but the rebellions against long-standing regimes had emboldened Kuwait groups on opposition ends of the spectrum: youth factions seeking more freedoms and Islamists critical of Western influence.

It's unclear, however, how much the Islamists can push their agenda, which includes trying to make Islamic law the basis for all legal codes and challenging perceived un-Islamic events such as women sports competitions and public dancing.

Some hard-liners also have questioned Kuwait's close ties with the U.S. military, which currently bases more than 20,000 troops in Kuwait and seeks to make the country its main site for American ground forces after the withdrawal from Iraq in December. Kuwait played a critical role as the staging area for the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq in 2003.

Kuwait's emir, Sheik Sabah Al Ahmad Al Sabah, called the election after months of political showdowns that included opposition lawmakers demanding to question the prime minister over an alleged payoff scandal and protests that culminated in anti-government mobs storming parliament.

In late November, the emir selected Defense Minister Sheik Jaber Al Hamad Al Sabah as the new prime minister, replacing the long-serving Sheik Nasser Al Mohammad Al Sabah. He had survived several no-confidence votes in parliament, but was the target of a growing campaign for his dismissal over allegations that government officials funneled payoffs to bank accounts outside the country. He has denied the charges.

While the ballots were being counted, Kuwait's interior minister issued an apparent warning to anti-government groups against staging more mass demonstrations.

"We are a state of institution," said Sheik Ahmad Al Jaber Al Sabah, according to the official Kuwait News Agency.

By Salon Staff

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