- By Kristian Coates UlrichsenKristian Coates Ulrichsen is deputy director of the Kuwait Programme on Development, Governance and Globalisation in the Gulf States at the London School of Economics.
Kuwaitis head to the polls on Saturday for the third time in 18 months. During that period, Kuwait’s fractious yet vibrant political landscape has been gripped by constitutional uncertainty as the Constitutional Court twice has intervened to annul the results of National Assembly elections. Although much of the energy that briefly threatened to escalate into mass opposition and open confrontation last fall has now dissipated, the outcome nevertheless will constitute the first and largest test of public opinion in the Gulf States in the "post-Arab Spring" aftermath of the Muslim Brotherhood’s ouster in Egypt. With Kuwait joining Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) in pledging $12 billion to Egypt’s interim administration, the election may provide an indication of the direction of political travel in the Gulf’s oldest participatory system.
The current elections are taking place after the Constitutional Court ruled on June 16 that the parliament elected in December 2012 was unconstitutional, citing technical irregularities in the emir’s decree that set up the National Election Commission in October 2012. The ruling came almost a year to the day since the court found similar procedural flaws in the December 2011 decree that had paved the way for the February 2012 election that resulted in major opposition gains.
Political life in Kuwait has been in a state of near-stasis since the current emir, Sheikh Sabah al-Ahmad Al-Sabah, came to power in January 2006. Eleven governments have since come and gone as the elected parliament clashed repeatedly with the appointed cabinet led by the emir’s nephew, Prime Minister Nasser al-Mohammad Al-Sabah. In the absence of legalized political parties, Kuwait’s politics became characterized by populist members of parliament (MPs) and initiatives, and susceptible to manipulation by competing ruling family factions. These converged in the sustained, large-scale demonstrations that forced the resignation of the prime minister in November 2011, and laid the seeds of the current political and constitutional uncertainty.
Following the removal of his nephew, Sabah appointed another senior figure in the ruling family, Sheikh Jabir al-Mubarak Al-Sabah, prime minister, and issued decrees annulling the National Assembly that had been elected in May 2009 and ordering fresh elections for February 2012. These resulted in a landslide victory for a loose coalition of tribal and Islamist opposition MPs who won 35 of the 50 seats in parliament. The unprecedented outcome reflected the depth of public concern — galvanized by the Arab Spring — at a range of issues, including political corruption and support for political reforms that would transfer more political power to elected institutions and representatives.
This political earthquake was followed by a second in June 2012, when the Constitutional Court annulled the February election and ordered the reinstatement of the assembly elected in 2009 (and dissolved in 2011.) The vocal political and popular opposition saw the move as an attempt by the ruling family to strip them of their electoral gains and vowed to contest the decision both through political means and direct action. Two attempts last summer to reconvene the 2009 assembly failed as the majority of reinstated MPs boycotted the parliamentary sessions in solidarity with the opposition movement. With Kuwaiti politics having ground to a halt, the emir inflamed the situation further with a decree in October 2012 reducing the number of votes each Kuwaiti could cast from four to one.
The National Assembly election on December 1, 2012 took place under the one-vote system and was boycotted by a majority of opposition groups, who contended that only parliament, not the emir, had the right to amend the electoral system. This touched a raw nerve in Kuwaiti politics, as the issue of electoral reform had been a major feature of youth-led public protests in 2005 and a catalyst of the subsequent opposition victory in the June 2006 National Assembly polls. With the ruling family perceived as having changed the electoral system arbitrarily in the past to dilute opposition forces — notably by reducing the number of constituencies from 25 to 10 in 1981 — many Kuwaitis believed the emir was overstepping the boundary of his authority by intervening directly in political life.
The December 2012 election took place against the backdrop of extreme political tension, mass protest, and an opposition boycott comprising a loose collection of liberal, Islamist, and tribal blocs. The populist de facto leader of the informal coalition of opposition groups, Musallim al-Barrak, issued an unprecedented threat to the emir at a rally in October, warning him not to drag Kuwait back "into the abyss of autocracy." The slogan "We will not allow you" subsequently became the defiant chant of a series of massive street demonstrations that shook Kuwait in the run-up to the election, and sporadic clashes occurred between groups of increasingly violent groups of youth and riot police across Kuwait City.
The elections themselves returned a new political class to parliament as the boycott of most major tribes and opposition forces allowed new faces to emerge, including 17 Shiite MPs. Shorn of critical voices, the pro-government assembly began to move ahead with major infrastructure and investment projects that formed the cornerstone of Kuwait’s ambitious economic diversification and long-term national strategic vision, but had repeatedly been delayed by parliamentary infighting and the chronic breakdown of trust between the elected assembly and the appointed government. The novel sight of a parliament and government working with, rather than against, each other was tempered by the realization that such a state of affairs was not likely to last for long, with the parliament extending its operating hours in a bid to pass as much legislation as possible before its term ended.
Kuwait’s two elections in February and December 2012 highlighted the polarization that briefly threatened to spiral out of control. And yet, the migration of the political opposition away from the parliamentary chamber did not prove as destabilizing as many observers predicted. The loose umbrella of opposition groups failed to agree on a common political platform and started to break up. This process of fragmentation accelerated when a concerted outreach campaign by senior ruling family members resulted in the leaders of several of Kuwait’s largest tribes declaring their intention to reenter the political process and run candidates in Saturday’s election. In addition, the protracted political stalemate has reinforced feelings of political apathy and cynicism with the electoral process, which are likely to be compounded by the fact that the vote is being held during Ramadan.
Short of the "game-changing" reforms to the political system that would address repairing the broken relationship between the parliament and the government, few people believe that anything substantive will change as a result of holding more elections. The lack of excitement or expectation is palpable and in stark contrast to the supercharged context of the previous two polls. Instead, it is the regional dimensions that may be most revealing in what they say about political attitudes in the emirate and across the Gulf. Kuwait’s Muslim Brotherhood affiliate, the Islamic Constitutional Movement, is boycotting the election amid a rising tide of anger among its members at the Kuwaiti government’s political and financial support for the military-led removal of President Mohamed Morsi in Egypt. With Kuwait boasting the least restrictive political system of all six of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) states, analysts will examine the outcome for clues as to the likely future trajectory of political trends in a region once again in a state of flux.
Kristian Coates Ulrichsen is a Research Fellow at the James A. Baker III Institute for Public Policy at Rice University.