The Middle East Channel

Kuwait’s uncertain path

The decision by Kuwait’s Constitutional Court not to rule on a government petition to amend the country’s electoral boundaries leaves both the government and opposition floundering. While it averted a major crisis in the Persian Gulf emirate, the outcome forces both camps to rethink their strategies of political confrontation. It also threatens to fragment the ...


The decision by Kuwait’s Constitutional Court not to rule on a government petition to amend the country’s electoral boundaries leaves both the government and opposition floundering. While it averted a major crisis in the Persian Gulf emirate, the outcome forces both camps to rethink their strategies of political confrontation. It also threatens to fragment the broader "blocs" of government and opposition supporters. However, the decision fails to present a clear route out of the paralysis that has characterized Kuwaiti politics for the past six years. Neither does it suggest a pathway for reforming the dysfunctional relationship between the government and parliament that lies at the root of much of the recent instability.

Kuwaiti politics has been shrouded in uncertainty ever since June 20 when the constitutional court annulled the result of the February election to the national assembly, and ordered the reinstatement of the previous assembly elected in May 2009. This unprecedented decision, taken on a point of procedure, stunned Kuwaiti analysts, with many interpreting it as a way to rid the government of the staunchly-oppositionist parliament in favor of its relatively pro-government predecessor. Islamist and tribal candidates associated with opposition groups won 34 of the 50 seats in the February 2 vote, and members of parliament (MPs) clashed repeatedly with cabinet members during the parliament’s volatile four-month tenure. The opposition Majority Bloc denounced the court’s decision to void the election as a "coup" against Kuwait’s constitution.

The prime minister, Sheikh Jaber al-Mubarak Al-Sabah, subsequently made two attempts to reconvene the 2009 assembly. Both efforts, on July 31 and August 7, failed as the majority of the 2009 parliament’s reinstated MPs boycotted the sessions. After the second attempt, the speaker, Jassim al-Khorafi, declared the 2009 parliament "clinically dead," and referred the matter to the emir, Sheikh Sabah al-Jabir Al-Sabah. On August 12, the emir spoke publicly to Kuwaitis and called for national unity and an end to "incorrect political practices." His appeal was shattered three days later when the government referred the election law to the constitutional court to determine whether the 2006 reforms to the districting system were actually in breach of the 1962 constitution.

This decision reopened old fault-lines in Kuwaiti politics. The districting issue has long been a flashpoint of discontent between the appointed cabinet and the elected parliamentarians. Between 1963 and 1975, Kuwait was divided into 10 districts, and each elected five deputies to the national assembly. Before the 1981 election, the government abruptly created a system of 25 districts each returning two members to parliament. Individual voters could cast votes for two candidates. Many Kuwaitis believe that the 1980 redistricting biased election results against political reform and that the ruling Al-Sabah family intended to reduce the size of the parliamentary opposition by unilaterally redrawing the voting districts.

The 25-district system negatively impacted the conduct of politics in Kuwait. It made vote buying easier since a smaller number of votes often separated winners from losers than was the case in the 10 larger districts. It also made it more difficult for candidates to work collectively and thus for ideological groups to win seats. This increased the number of tribal deputies in the parliament — a process magnified by the large-scale naturalization and enfranchisement of tens of thousands of tribesmen in the 1970s and 80s as the government sought to counterbalance the influence of urban, liberal Kuwaitis in the national assembly.

Political corruption escalated under this system. It was a major issue in the 2003 election and then became the central issue in the May 2006 election. This was held five months after the death of the longstanding emir, Sheikh Jabir al-Ahmed Al-Sabah, and against the backdrop of a youth movement that mobilized around calls for political reform. The election pitted an energized opposition against perceived anti-reform elements in the ruling family and the national assembly. It resulted in a victory for the political opposition, which then united to force the ruling family to agree to redistrict Kuwait into five electoral constituencies, each returning 10 members to parliament.

The new five-system law was first used in early elections in May 2008, and again in May 2009 and February 2012, as mounting political opposition to the unpopular prime minister, Sheikh Nasser al-Mohammed Al-Sabah, culminated in his ousting in December 2011. While the system was intended to reduce vote buying, it notably failed to curb rampant levels of political corruption. This became evident in the scale of the corruption scandal uncovered in the autumn of 2011. It involved the alleged transfer of funds and payment of bribes to up to 16 MPs in return for voting on government lines, and it led to the fall of the prime minister and the dissolution of the national assembly on December 6, 2011.

After the government asked the constitutional court to rule on the legality of the 2006 move to a five-district system, the political opposition declared that the electoral law could not be changed before the next election. It suspected the government of attempting to redraw the boundaries of political constituencies to dilute their strength and lessen the prospects of opposition victories in future elections. Hence, the Majority Bloc accused the government of seeking to manipulate the judiciary in order to control "the outcome of any future parliamentary election to monopolize power."

All these assumptions must now be revised by Kuwait’s major political players. If the government believed that it could use the court to maneuver a way out of the political impasse, it must think again. Jubilant opposition leaders immediately called on the government to resign and hold fresh elections, which it is almost certain to win, thereby prolonging the political deadlock. Moreover, the attempt to deprive the opposition of its majority in the last election has hardened its demands for an elected government. This hitherto has been a red line not just in Kuwait, but in the neighboring Persian Gulf monarchies as well. Reports after the February election suggested that the government was contemplating offering the opposition nine positions in the 16-member cabinet, but was unable to agree. It may be more difficult for hard-liners within the government or the ruling family to block such moves in the future.

Yet, it would be a mistake to view the ruling as a success for the opposition. It made great political capital from denouncing the constitutional court as a politicized and biased arm of the executive. But, these claims have been severely undermined by the court’s failure to support the government. Neither was the suggestion by members of the Majority Bloc for transforming the country into a single electoral constituency given any mileage in the ruling. Moreover, the broad umbrella of opposition groups may struggle to justify its performance in the short-lived parliament elected in February. Populist initiatives and attempts to settle political scores predominated over serious proposals to resolve the many obstacles holding back Kuwaiti development.

Instead, the one gain from the constitutional court’s ruling is the reaffirmation of judicial independence and the separation of powers in Kuwait. At a time when freedoms are under threat elsewhere in the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) states, Kuwait once again has demonstrated its outlier status in the region. Its vocal opposition and powerful parliamentary lobby set Kuwait apart from its neighbors, and can be a source of strength as much as it currently is a weakness, particularly in times of regional upheaval. Yet for that to happen, big decisions — on the status of political parties, the relationship between the parliament and the government, and even consensus on the direction and pace of political reform — all remain unresolved. However, these are battles for another day in the next chapter of Kuwait’s mercurial politics.

Kristian Coates Ulrichsen is a research fellow at the London School of Economics and Political Science and an associate fellow at Chatham House.

Kristian Coates Ulrichsen is a fellow for the Middle East at the Baker Institute for Public Policy at Rice University in Houston.

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