On 21 October, an estimated 50,000 Kuwaitis took to the streets to protest against plans to change the country’s electoral law, after parliament was dissolved for the fifth time since 2006.
Mooted as the biggest peaceful procession in the history of Kuwait, the situation quickly dissolved into violent confrontation between demonstrators and police, leaving more than 100 protesters injured. Within two days, authorities had announced a ban on gatherings of more than 20 people.
Proposed changes to the electoral law, which would allow voters to select one candidate instead of four in elections, have been declared a “coup against the constitution” by Kuwait’s opposition, who have vowed to boycott fresh polls called for 1 December.
The public outrage prompted by the current political crisis is not surprising given the succession of elections, dissolutions and new governments that have stifled Kuwait’s economic progress since the death of Emir Sheikh Ahmad al-Jaber al-Sabah in 2006.
Kuwait’s parliamentary breakdown
Kuwait’s parliamentary opposition, formed mainly from Islamist and tribal candidates, won 34 out of 50 seats in the 2 February elections. They spent the next four months clashing with the government, filing for eight grilling sessions against government ministers, two of whom resigned.
The situation came to a head on 18 June. With the opposition insisting on grilling the interior minister, a member of the ruling family, Emir Sheikh Sabah al-Ahmad al-Jaber al-Sabah suspended parliament.
Two days later, Kuwaiti politics was shrouded in further uncertainty when the constitutional court annulled the results of the February National Assembly elections that had yielded a majority to the opposition. The court ordered the reinstatement of the previous, less confrontational body elected in 2009 on the basis of a technicality – the 2012 dissolution had not been constitutional.
The government’s move, and those that have followed, stunned Kuwait observers nationally and abroad. The opposition denounced the court’s decision to annul the election as another “coup” against the country’s constitution.
The latest area of argument is an old flashpoint of discontent between the government and parliament: the electoral system itself.
The number of votes per person and number of voting districts have varied over Kuwait’s democratic history.
After its formation in 1962, Kuwait was divided into 10 constituencies, each selecting five members of parliament (MPs) for the National Assembly. This was changed to 25 constituencies and two MPs in 1981. The 2006 electoral constituency law divided Kuwait again, this time into just five districts, each electing 10 members of parliament to the 50-member National Assembly.
That Islamists are taking part in an energetic parliament is deeply alarming for many in the Gulf
Kristian Coates Ulrichsen, London School of Economics
On 20 October, the government announced it would press ahead with changes to the electoral system by unilaterally redrawing the voting districts for elections on 1 December. This is despite the constitutional court ruling against the government in September, saying that the current law was in line with the constitution.
Changing the system of numerous votes for each person to one vote is expected to strengthen the government’s hand, making vote-buying easier, but also making it more difficult for candidates to work collectively, which means ideological blocks will be harder to form.
Push for reform in Kuwait
The response was calls for boycotts and street protests from almost all opposition groups, Bedouin tribes, and numerous former members of parliament.
“The opposition is still likely to perform well in the elections, heralding another aggressive parliament and prolonging the political deadlock,” says Kristin Diwan, assistant professor of comparative and regional studies at the American University School of International Service in Washington.
The opposition was able to mobilise tens of thousands of supporters last November, seeking the resignation of the prime minister, Sheikh Nasser Mohammad al-Sabah. They got their way then, and an emboldened opposition may well attempt to repeat the trick.
“It is pretty clear the opposition won the last round when they escalated the situation against the prime minister in defiance of the emir,” says Diwan. “Some people thought it was just that the prime minister at the time was unpopular, or it was a matter of corruption, but it was clear from some of the opposition that if there was no progress on the reforms they are seeking, then the next prime minister would receive the same treatment.
“They have a pretty clear vision of pushing things politically until they get more significant reform or even have them appointing the government in line with a traditional parliamentary monarchy,” Diwan adds.
There have been differing opinions over just how far to push the constitutional reform agenda. This was exemplified by Musallam al-Barak, the politician who received the highest number of votes in the February elections.
Al-Barak was outspoken at a rally in mid-October, describing the government as heading towards autocracy and criticising the Emir. He was immediately rebuked by several prominent members of the opposition for going too far.
“Kuwait has been ratcheting up to this,” says Diwan. “Some Kuwaitis are more openly discussing the internal problems with the ruling family. This is mostly in private, behind closed doors and in the diwaniyas, but they are more willing to use very harsh language.
“But the Emir is a red line, and to say what [Al-Barak] did in a public rally in an extremely confrontational manner invites others to escalate the rhetoric. It is testing the strong red lines in a very direct way.”
Al-Barak represents more tribal-populist Kuwaitis unhappy at many of the government’s political economic decisions. They are not willing to support the government’s privatisation programmes or large infrastructure projects without greater transparency. As the political situation becomes more complicated and tensions increase, it will be hard for the ruling elite to hold together. The more extreme elements will not be able to push their agendas alone, says Diwan.
In this sense, Kuwait is a political bellwether for the region, an outlier of relative judicial independence and the separation of power set apart from the rest of the Gulf.
“That Islamists are taking part in an energetic parliament is deeply alarming for many in the Gulf who believe they shouldn’t be allowed to be so vocal and see it as an alarming trend,” says Kristian Coates Ulrichsen, a fellow at the London School of Economics.
Sense of disillusionment
This sentiment was confirmed when Dubai’s outspoken chief of police, Lieutenant General Dhahi al-Khalfan, warned in March of a Muslim Brotherhood plot to overthrow the governments of the Gulf. Al-Khalfan boldly announced that Kuwait would be the first to fall to the Brotherhood in 2013.
While opposition members in Kuwait come from across the political spectrum, the ruling Al-Sabah family is equally fragmented. In the six years since the death of Emir Sheikh Ahmad al-Sabah, tensions between the Jaber and Salem branches of the family have continued to simmer.
A brief dispute over succession arose as the emir’s initial successor, Crown Prince Sheikh Saad bin Abdullah al-Sabah was gravely ill. It was resolved with the accession of Emir Sheikh Sabah al-Ahmad al-Jaber al-Sabah, the younger brother of the late Emir Amad al-Sabah, now 83 years old.
The succession dispute was unprecedented in the Gulf region, as it marked the first use of an elected legislature’s constitutional ability to formally remove a leader. Despite solving the leadership question, it increased tensions between the two ruling branches that had previously alternated succession.
Under the current emir, the Jaber branch has been favoured with the appointment of the crown prince and prime minister. The Salem branch has had to make do with deputy prime minister and foreign minister as their highest ranks. The divisions among the ruling family members over how to govern and how to deal with the opposition are deepening. No alternative mechanism or a return to the alternating rule has been agreed, leaving some in the Salem branch with the drastic proposition of siding with the opposition in the National Assembly.
“A lot of the energy has been devoted to jockeying for position. So they have an incentive to rock the boat. This situation has pushed things to the younger generation, and the younger sheikhs who want to position themselves. They have been willing to take their rivalry into society by mobilising people on their behalf in parliament. This is now being amplified,” says Diwan.
After six years of near continuous deadlock, there is now a growing sense of disillusionment with the government and the opposition, which appear more intent on settling scores and political gesturing than coming up with a genuine vision for Kuwait.
“The stakes have become so high that now you need a real alternative vision, and these groups, at least the more populist ones, just don’t have it,” says Ulrichsen. “They had four months of the assembly, which was opposition-dominated, and they wasted time on grandstanding and settling old scores.”
The Kuwait government is to press ahead with changes to the electoral system for elections on 1 December