Kuwait’s opposition loses its voice

20 March 2013

After boycotting the December elections, opposition groups in Kuwait now find themselves excluded from the political process, but it is unlikely that the government will continue unopposed for long

On 3 March, opposition groups in Kuwait gathered at the office of former parliamentarian Musallam al-Barrak to announce the formation of a new coalition, made up of various political blocs, youth groups, student organisations and public figures.

A statement from the group declared its intention to form a coalition “that serves as an umbrella bringing them all together under a comprehensive framework unifying their ranks”. The move is aimed at galvanising anti-government support in the country, after a miscalculated boycott of December’s elections left opposition groups without a voice in Kuwait’s current parliament.

The agreed objectives of the coalition include moving Kuwait to a parliamentary system based on democratic rotation of power and public freedom. It also calls for the government to annul its controversial one-vote law, describing it as an “authoritarian tool”.

Disparate ideas for Kuwait

Unsurprisingly, cracks have already started to appear in the wide-ranging group. Just a day after the announcement, a youth panel at a political conference held in Kuwait City degenerated into attacks between rival Islamist and secular groups, highlighting the huge disparity in ideas for Kuwait’s future.

It is a far cry from their strong position just a year ago, when elections in February 2012 brought the opposition an unprecedented 34 out of 50 seats. But the opposition did not exactly endear themselves to most Kuwaitis during their stint in the National Assembly, spending it engaged in a constant series of clashes with the government, before parliament was dissolved in October for the second time in less than a year.

“They had four months in the National Assembly with a considerable majority, but did not convince the majority of Kuwaitis that they had an alternative vision for the country,” says Kristian Coates-Ulrichsen, a fellow at the London School of Economics’ Kuwait programme.

The opposition groups then decided to boycott the fresh elections, held on 2 December.

“The opposition were mistaken about the ability of street protests to strip the government of its legitimacy,” says Ulrichsen. According to the National Elections Committee, despite the opposition calling on people to withhold their vote, the government still managed to get 39.7 per cent of the electorate out to the polling stations.

As a result, the opposition has been left with no seats in the new parliament. Shia candidates, traditionally closely aligned with the ruling Al-Sabah family, won 17 seats, a major gain from the seven seats taken in the previous election. On the other hand, Islamist candidates saw their numbers dwindle to just four members. They had previously dominated the assembly with as many as 23 members.

“It is a remarkable shift,” says Ulrichsen. “The opposition is in disarray. The government is carrying on as normal, without the opposition who have become irrelevant. I doubt they could have even dreamt that it would work out like this. It really is a stunning reversal when compared to the opposition gains in late 2011 and early 2012.”

Old habits

This is not to say the government will have it all its own way, however. With the opposition out of the way, this session of parliament was meant to be the most cooperative seen in years. But some habits have lingered, in particular parliament’s continued desire to interrogate the government. In February, two Kuwaiti MPs requested to grill Oil Minister Hani Hussain over allegations of irregularities.

The government is carrying on as normal, without the opposition who have become irrelevant

Kristian Coates-Ulrichsen, London School of Economics

Rather than face the ignominy of questions, previous grilling requests have resulted in ministerial resignations and even forced the emir to dissolve parliament. Although this grilling was cancelled, along with questions for four other ministers, the move sets the tone for how the legislative and executive bodies will continue to be at loggerheads. Some parliamentarians say the disruptions demonstrate that the government does not take its role as a legislative body seriously.

The government is building momentum, but it also needs to build trust with parliament so it can get on with its economic programme. Ten years have passed since a Kuwaiti assembly completed a full four-year term, with 10 parliaments in the past six years alone. The country is crying out for some sense of political stability.

The National Assembly is now made up of mostly newcomers to the Kuwaiti political scene. About 30 of the 50-member body is made up of first timers who are largely unknown, but may represent the emergence of a new political class.

Part of the problem is built into Kuwait’s often dysfunctional political system. Political parties are banned in Kuwait, as in the rest of the GCC. With no real ideological groupings, politicians simply work for whatever will get them re-elected.

“There are lots of populist pressures on the MPs, who rely on giving patronage for votes,” says Ulrichsen.

Economic measures

The latest example is a proposal for debt relief for Kuwaitis, along with income tax for expatriates working in the country. Kuwait’s financial and economic affairs committee reached an agreement on 12 March for the government to buy up the interest on billions of dollars’ worth of private debt held by Kuwaiti citizens from 2002-08. The idea had been mooted in parliament in previous sessions, but never passed.

At the same time, a decision on resolving the more contentious topic of granting citizenship to the stateless Bidoon was delayed.

“But economic populism is not sustainable in the long run,” says Ulrichsen.

The opposition’s greatest success came at the end of 2011 with the removal of Prime Minister Sheikh Nasser al-Mohammed al-Sabah, the emir’s nephew, in December 2011. The widely unpopular premier was forced to resign following allegations of corruption levelled by the opposition in parliament. He was replaced by Sheikh Jaber al-Mubarak al-Sabah as Kuwait’s seventh prime minister.

I am sure another flashpoint will arise, and all the fundamental issues feeding the opposition remain

Kristin Smith Diwan, American University

To the opposition’s credit, Kuwait has pulled back from the brink. Towards the end of 2012, the country seemed dangerously close to slipping into violent and perhaps armed confrontations of the sort not often seen in the Gulf. Only Bahrain has witnessed this kind of violence, although its drivers have been sectarian. Whether the uneasy calm will continue remains to be seen.

Kristin Smith Diwan, assistant professor of Middle East politics at the American University in Washington, agrees that the opposition has effectively been neutered in the short term.

“But given the escalation in demands and the outlook of the younger generation, in the medium to long term I think the government will have to make democratic concessions,” says Diwan.

“I wouldn’t count the Kuwaiti opposition out. I am sure another flashpoint will arise, and all the fundamental issues feeding the opposition remain.”

Kuwait’s courts are expected to make two key rulings imminently. The first is over the government’s amendments to the election law that reduced the number of candidates voters can choose from four to one.

Critics say this harmed tribal votes and favoured the government’s own candidates in the recent elections. When the change was announced last October, it was met with outrage and an estimated 50,000 Kuwaitis took to the streets in the country’s largest protest.

Since then, the opposition’s momentum seems to have been lost and street protests have faded. But the decision could prove to be a new flashpoint.

“Everyone is waiting for this ruling. The Constitutional Court was supposed to make a decision in February, but it keeps being put back,” says a source in Kuwait City. “It could rule that it was unconstitutional, but no one really knows. The feeling is that everyone is holding back until they have a better idea of what direction things are going. The court ruling will be a major indicator, but it keeps getting put back.”

Another significant case concerns Musallam al-Barrak, unofficial leader of the opposition movement, who is awaiting trial, accused of insulting Kuwait’s ruler Emir Sheikh Sabah al-Ahmad al-Jaber al-Sabah at a rally in the middle of October. He could face a lengthy prison term of up to five years if found guilty.

Consensus lacking

Despite more than a year of sporadic street protests, the opposition has struggled to articulate a viable alternative proposition for Kuwait beyond opposing the government.

“This is a failure of political vision,” says Ulrichsen. “There is no consensus on an alternative to the way Kuwait has operated for decades.”

With their boycott of the December elections, the opposition groups now find themselves excluded from the political process. The Kuwait government is in its strongest position for a long time and is taking advantage of a more compliant National Assembly to build the momentum it needs to push through its economic reforms and major infrastructure projects programme. The government has already started, signing a $2bn contract for Kuwait’s first independent water and power plant, a deal that had previously been vetoed in parliament.

However, given the turbulence of Kuwait’s recent political history, it is unlikely that the government will be able to proceed completely unopposed for very long.

Key fact

It has been 10 years since a Kuwaiti assembly completed a full four-year term

Source: MEED

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