- By Marc Lynch
Marc Lynch is associate professor of political science and international affairs at George Washington University, where he is the director of the Institute for Middle East Studies and of the Project on Middle East Political Science. He is also a non-resident senior fellow at the Center for a New American Security. He is the author of The Arab Uprising (March 2012, PublicAffairs).
He publishes frequently on the politics of the Middle East, with a particular focus on the Arab media and information technology, Iraq, Jordan, Egypt, and Islamist movements.
Guest post by F. Gregory Gause, writing in from Kuwait City.
My quick read of Kuwait’s elections yesterday is that they are indeed a big event in Kuwaiti history but the third round of national voting in three years will not resolve the country’s deeper political crisis.
The headline, and deservedly so, is the victory of four women candidates in the election. It was a great achievement for each one, history making. Dr.Ma’suma al-Mubarak was the top vote getter in the first district. Dr. Asil al-Awadi was the second ranking vote getter in the 3rd district. Dr. Rola al-Dashti won in the third district as well, despite the fact that it is an overwhelmingly Sunni district and Dr. Rola is from a Shi’i family. Dr. Salwa al-Jassar finished in the 10th spot in the 2nd district, where very few observers thought she had a good chance to win. So this is a big event in Kuwaiti history.
But there are other take-aways as well. The Muslim Brotherhood (Islamic Constitutional Movement, HADAS is the Arabic acronym) dropped, by my count, to only one member of parliament from three in the previous parliament. The Salafi Islamic Grouping dropped from 5 members to 2 members. This does not mean that Islamist sentiment is on the wane in Kuwait, I think. Many independent Islamists did well, and in the areas where tribal tickets dominate the voting (4th and 5th districts), many of the winners have Islamist orientations. Liberals did better than in the recent past, powered by the women candidates (all of whom can be classified, more or less, as liberals). But, overall, Islamists still outnumber more liberal members of the parliament by quite a bit.
Something that won’t make the international headlines but is very noteworthy here in Kuwait: the parliamentarians who spearheaded the challenges to the government in the last parliament have almost all been re-elected (the Muslim Brotherhood being the exception here — see above about organized groups). The names will only mean something to those interested in real Kuwaiti inside baseball: Ahmad al-Sadoun, Musallim al-Barak, Faysal al-Mislim. Two candidates held in jail by the government for awhile because of their incendiary remarks, Khalid al-Tahus and Dayf Allah Buramia, were also both elected. (I doubt that they will not be disposed to give the government any breaks.) The last parliament was dissolved because these MP’s called for confidence votes on the Prime Minister. My guess is that they will not be shy about doing that again in this parliament, though they might give the new government a longer honeymoon than the last one had.
Which brings me (finally) to my bottom line — the "political crisis" (as Kuwaitis like to call it) will not be solved by this election. The "crisis" is three elections in the last three years, the 6th government about to be formed in less than four years, and a sense that Kuwait cannot take any big decisions because of the stand-off between the government and the parliament. The key to the political stasis is the unwillingness of the Al Sabah family to permit senior family members, including the Prime Minister, to face confidence votes in the parliament. Rather than do that, the government resigns and, sometimes, parliament is dissolved. This is not because the last Prime Minister, Shaykh Nasir al-Muhammad, could not get majority support in the parliament. He probably could have had 35 votes (out of the 50) at least if the confidence motions (called "istijwab" here — a "demand for an answer" in Arabic that involves addressing specific questions/charges to a minister and then having a vote of confidence) had been allowed to go to a vote. I think it is an unwillingness on the part of senior members of the family to tolerate such a precedent being set. (There is also quite a bit of speculation about rivalries and divisions among the Al Sabah as provoking, from behind the scenes, these confidence motions. A number of candidates mentioned this specifically during the campaign, calling on the ruling family to close their ranks and solve their divisions.) Unless the new Prime Minister, be it Shaykh Nasir al-Muhammad or another member of the family, is willing to play parliamentary politics, face confidence motions and put together coalitions to defeat them, we will probably have a replay of the political crises that have led to the past three elections.