Kuwait’s democracy experiment on the line

  Guest Post by Nathan Brown One of the odd features of the recent American interest in Arab democracy is that it has focused on unlikely places. Iraq after the invasion and Palestine before statehood have drawn significant attention from American enthusiasts of Arab democracy, but did not seem particularly fertile ground. But out of ...

 

Guest Post by Nathan Brown

One of the odd features of the recent American interest in Arab democracy is that it has focused on unlikely places. Iraq after the invasion and Palestine before statehood have drawn significant attention from American enthusiasts of Arab democracy, but did not seem particularly fertile ground. But out of the limelight, slow steps toward democracy have taken place in Kuwait. The Kuwaiti political system today is not fully democratic, but neither is it fully monarchical—it occupied a halfway house in between the two.

 

Guest Post by Nathan Brown

One of the odd features of the recent American interest in Arab democracy is that it has focused on unlikely places. Iraq after the invasion and Palestine before statehood have drawn significant attention from American enthusiasts of Arab democracy, but did not seem particularly fertile ground. But out of the limelight, slow steps toward democracy have taken place in Kuwait. The Kuwaiti political system today is not fully democratic, but neither is it fully monarchical—it occupied a halfway house in between the two.

But Kuwait’s democratizing experiment is currently on the line and the political crisis there bears watching.

If you were to read the Kuwaiti constitution, you would get the impression that its system is some kind of constitutional monarchy—it combines an amir from the ruling family with an elected parliament. That parliament has legislative authority as well as tools to oversee the executive.

But for many years, the ruling family was able exercise authority in a manner more like its autocratic cousins in the Gulf than a real constitutional monarchy. And it was generally able to do so without violating the constitution by monopolizing key positions and by co-opting some parliamentary deputies and playing the rest off against each other. On some occasions the parliament showed an independent streak and even seemed poised to summon some royal ministers for parliamentary questioning. On such occasions, the amir suspended parliament (once in the 1970s and once in the 1980s).

But the ruling family’s ability to dominate the parliament has decayed.  Cooptation does not seem to work.  Parliamentary deputies now seem more likely to compete in their ability to criticize ministers than they are to curry their favor and patronage. The ruling family continues to hold some key positions, but most of its ministers are no longer treated as sacrosanct—some have even been pressured into resignation. The ruling family itself no longer seems so united (and recently divisions reached the unprecedented point that the content of private family discussions were leaked to the press).  Parliamentary reformers successfully pressed for a prime minister who, while a royal, does not double as crown prince (the dual role made it more politically difficult to criticize him).

But if the ruling family has lost some of its dominance, the parliament has lost much of its coherence. The role of tribal deputies has grown, and the ideological and sectarian fracturing of the parliament has become more marked.  As a result, the parliament is increasingly able to hamper the work of the cabinet but far less able to impose any coherent agenda of its own.

The result has been gridlock. Rather than priding themselves on their slowly democratizing system, Kuwaitis have reacted with dismay as their system has tended toward paralysis.

A spate of democratic reforms might be one avenue for forward movement—such as a prime minister who is a commoner; a full party system, and a cabinet that has a clear parliamentary majority and a clear opposition.

But instead the country is now faced with the possibility of retreat from democracy.  After repeated attempts by some parliamentarians to subject the prime minister to formal parliamentary questioning—a normal democratic step in some countries, but considered an affront to the dignity of the ruling family in Kuwait—the country’s amir has unmistakably signaled displeasure.  On March 18, he dissolved the parliament and called for new elections.  While the amir resisted the urge to suspend the parliament, he spoke so strongly against the behavior of confrontational parliamentarians that it was difficult to avoid the impression that he would consider a full suspension.

And the call for new elections was combined with rumors that he would turn to the current crown prince to take over as prime minister—reversing the separation of the two positions that democratizing reformers had worked so hard to obtain.  (Rumors were earlier floated that the amir would use the electoral interregnum to decree a new electoral law—a step that would probably be unconstitutional but that would be difficult to reverse.)

Nobody expects the new elections to resolve the crisis—elections in 2006 and 2008 only seemed to deepen the dysfunction.  Nor is combining the positions of crown prince and prime minister likely to cow parliamentarians—in the last years before the separation of the position, ambitious parliamentarians had increasingly signaled that they would no longer defer to tradition and treat the prime minister as immune from direct questioning. Indeed, earlier this year, when the amir was reported to have described the current prime minister as a future amir (essentially upending tradition in Kuwait and probably annoying some members of the ruling family by naming not only his successor but also his successor’s successor), no parliamentarians backed off.

The Kuwaiti experiment in limited by expanding democracy is today at a critical point.  The crisis there may be less dramatic than those in Iraq and Palestine and it is certainly less bloody. But one of the Arab world’s most democratic systems is at issue, and supporters of Arab democracy should be paying close attention.

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. Twitter: @abuaardvark

Tag: Kuwait

More from Foreign Policy

A worker cuts the nose off the last Ukraine's Tupolev-22M3, the Soviet-made strategic aircraft able to carry nuclear weapons at a military base in Poltava, Ukraine on Jan. 27, 2006. A total of 60 aircraft were destroyed  according to the USA-Ukrainian disarmament agreement.
A worker cuts the nose off the last Ukraine's Tupolev-22M3, the Soviet-made strategic aircraft able to carry nuclear weapons at a military base in Poltava, Ukraine on Jan. 27, 2006. A total of 60 aircraft were destroyed according to the USA-Ukrainian disarmament agreement.

Why Do People Hate Realism So Much?

The school of thought doesn’t explain everything—but its proponents foresaw the potential for conflict over Ukraine long before it erupted.

Employees watch a cargo ship at a port in China, which is experiencing an economic downturn.
Employees watch a cargo ship at a port in China, which is experiencing an economic downturn.

China’s Crisis of Confidence

What if, instead of being a competitor, China can no longer afford to compete at all?

Federal Reserve Chair Jerome Powell testifies in the U.S. Senate in Washington on Sept. 24, 2020.
Federal Reserve Chair Jerome Powell testifies in the U.S. Senate in Washington on Sept. 24, 2020.

Why This Global Economic Crisis Is Different

This is the first time since World War II that there may be no cooperative way out.

Chinese President Xi Jinping (left) and Premier Li Keqiang applaud at the closing session of the National People's Congress at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing on March 11.
Chinese President Xi Jinping (left) and Premier Li Keqiang applaud at the closing session of the National People's Congress at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing on March 11.

China Is Hardening Itself for Economic War

Beijing is trying to close economic vulnerabilities out of fear of U.S. containment.