On Tuesday, the Emir, Sheikh Sabah al-Ahmad al-Sabah, announced that all those who were jailed for insulting him would receive a pardon. The fact that this comes so quickly after an election indicates that it might be part of a strategy by the regime to reduce tensions. The pardon announcement includes one name and one group of people that are conspicuous for their absence – Musallam al-Barrak is not included, and neither are those who participated in the storming of parliament. The announcement was made in a speech in which the Emir said that he was issuing the pardon on the occasion of the final ten days of the month of Ramadan.
Barrak’s lawyer said that the reason is because there has been no final verdict in his case. It also appears not to apply to those who are facing pending charges – and in Kuwait, insulting the Emir is subject to a potential five year prison sentence.
The fact that these pardons come in the wake of an election is very interesting, and telling. In this most recent election there were slight gains by liberals, but many of the major opposition factions decided to boycott. The regime’s decision to pardon many of the defendants (but not Barrak) may be an attempt to divide the opposition’s supporters from the political figures who play a leading role in the movement. In the election, Shi’ite MPs won eight seats which is a major drop from 17 seats in the previous parliament. Three liberals were elected compared with zero before (the last election for the now-annulled parliament was boycotted) and, Sunni Islamists increased their total to seven seats after winning five previously.
The major change was that major tribes which boycotted last time decided to participate, as well as some liberal voters, boosting the turnout to 52.5 percent. There were several tribes that participated this time but did not do so the last time, including the Awazem, the Mutair, and the Rashaida, although their electoral success was relatively limited prompting some observers to argue that the recent electoral system places the largest tribes at a disadvantage. One interesting element about the tribal vote was that there were several smaller tribes that gained seats at the expense of their larger counterparts.
This election appears to over little in terms of a long term settlement of Kuwait’s political crisis. 26 out of 50 MPs are new compared to the previous parliament, but the Prime Minister was just reappointed by the Emir. What remains to be seen is if this election ushers in a phase of tenuous stability and if this is enough to enable the country to achieve the economic diversification that it desperately needs to reduce the impact of swings in the price of oil and other petroleum products.