The Middle East Channel

A respite in Kuwait?

In recent years Kuwait seems to have descended into a never-ending succession of elections, government reshufflings, protests, and grillings of ministers. This often baffles outside observers, and in Kuwait it gives rise to a sense of chronic crisis and dysfunction. Up until recently, however, it has also been possible to make out an underlying story in Kuwaiti politics, a story of the rise of the political influence of the National Assembly. Thus in 2006 the opposition forced through an electoral redistricting over the opposition of the government; in 2009 the prime minister submitted to a parliamentary vote of confidence for the first time in Kuwaiti history; in late 2011 the opposition in the National Assembly forced out the sitting prime minister; in February, following a major bribery scandal implicating pro-government members of parliament (MPs), the opposition won a resounding 34 seat majority in the 50 member National Assembly. Not long ago, few Kuwaitis took seriously the idea of a "popular government" with a prime minister from outside the family; today many expect that it will happen, with the main question being how long it will take.

The emir and other senior sheikhs of the ruling family have resorted to a variety of stratagems to slow the rise of the assembly. Some of these caused a good deal of harm and most contributed to the sense of paralysis and lack of direction in Kuwaiti politics. None were very effective. Earlier this fall, however, the emir tried a new tack, issuing a decree that changed the electoral system by reducing the number of votes cast by each voter from four to one. Ballots in Kuwait feature a long list of names with no party or other affiliation. The 10 candidates with the most votes in each of the five districts win a seat in the National Assembly. The change was discouraged within-district electoral lists: some of these lists in recent elections have been run by ideological blocs, but the more successful ones have been tribal. Under the four vote system, large tribes could often capture four seats in the two tribal districts by running tribal lists, virtually shutting out the smaller tribes and other groups.

With his decree the emir stole the momentum away from the parliamentary opposition. The opposition, fearing that the new rules would dilute the influence of political groups (and larger tribes) boycotted the December 1 parliamentary elections. Kuwait now has a solidly pro-government National Assembly for the first time in years. This is probably, however, a temporary victory for the government. To understand why, it helps to look not only at what the emir did, but also what he did not do.

In decades past, faced with a difficult National Assembly, Kuwait's emirs have not settled for tinkering with the electoral system, but instead suspended the parliament unconstitutionally, in 1976 and 1986. Outside observers, with an eye on prevailing practices in the rest of the Gulf monarchies, have long waited for the Al-Sabah to suspend the assembly once again. This possibility has been extensively discussed in Kuwait, with this talk of an unconstitutional suspension reaching a crescendo of sorts in March of 2009 when sheikhs of the ruling family held a family meeting to discuss the issue. One major concern voiced at the meeting was the fear that an unconstitutional suspension would provoke a reaction on the street that the regime was ill equipped to handle. The emir, in this crisis and in others, decided to respect the 1962 constitution. The emir also couched his recent decree entirely within bounds of the constitution, and invited those who doubted its constitutionality to challenge it at Kuwait's Constitutional Court, a body that has displayed independence in the past.

The opposition's boycott mostly succeeded in keeping the opposition out of the new assembly. To be sure, few prominent Sunni political figures ran in the elections; some of the few exceptions were implicated in a major bribery scandal. The boycott was most successful in the tribal districts, where three of the four largest tribes boycotted. The Sunni hadhar (descended from the townspeople of old Kuwait) were split, and the Shiites voted in force. Overall, most voters ignored the boycott and voted: turnout fell from around 60 percent in recent elections to 40 percent. Put another way, about two thirds of regular Kuwaiti voters participated in an election widely viewed as a referendum on the emir's decree. This leaves the opposition on the outside, with few tools to influence events beyond street protests. But some street protests have devolved into something akin to riots, and the emir's decree is not something that most Kuwaitis think should be resolved in the streets.

The recent elections give the government a respite. But it does not resolve the underlying problem of political authority in Kuwait. Eventually, and probably sooner rather than later, the opposition will return to the National Assembly. It can win a great many seats, and quite possibly a majority, even under the new electoral system. This could well return Kuwaiti politics to its pre-decree status quo: the parliamentary opposition, wielding the vote of no confidence, makes it impossible for the government to accomplish anything without parliamentary support. But the emir and senior members of the ruling family do not want to appoint a government that is drawn from, or has the explicit support of, an opposition majority in the National Assembly. Two principles of political authority are in competition, one monarchical and one electoral: thus far the political leadership in the ruling family and the opposition have not been able to work together to govern effectively while sharing power. The ruling family is unwilling or unable to dispense with the National Assembly, and the emir appears unwilling to agree to a government led by a non-sheikh with support in the assembly. It is this stalemate that produces the long series of crises and Kuwaiti politics, and it is not a stalemate that is likely to be resolved soon.

Michael Herb is an associate professor of political science and director of the Middle East Institute at Georgia State University.

YASSER AL-ZAYYAT/AFP/Getty Images

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