Kuwait poll reinforces political uncertainty

While the recent polls held in Kuwait were peaceful, the government would do well to compromise with opponents to reduce the risk of growing dissent among nationals. Published in MEED, 6 December 2012

Kuwait’s latest election campaign for the National Assembly (parliament) came to an end on 1 December with a whimper rather than a bang. Turnout was low but the day passed off peacefully and there was probably enough in the outcome for government and opposition groups to both claim a victory of sorts.

Just how many people turned up to vote is still a matter of debate. Official figures from the Ministry of Information indicated that, by the time polling stations closed at 8pm, just 39 per cent of eligible voters had taken part (see table). Opposition groups who had called for a boycott claimed the real figure was less than 30 per cent. Both figures are far below the 60 per cent turnout that is usual for elections in the country.

With the vote behind it, the focus of Kuwaiti politics should now turn to the newly elected chamber. In reality, however, important political battles are likely to be fought in court and on the streets of Kuwait.

Opposition undeterred in Kuwait

For the main opposition groups, the low turnout was an affirmation that their calls for a boycott had been heeded and they have vowed to continue their public protests. The focus of their anger is directed at the ‘one person, one vote’ system that the emir, Sheikh Sabah al-Ahmad al-Jaber al-Sabah, introduced by decree in September. This replaced a system that had given four votes to each person and the change, they claimed, unfairly penalised them and favoured pro-government candidates.

The number of people that shunned the poll was boosted by the fact that many disliked the way the emir had pushed the change through by decree, rather than having any particular problem with the new voting system itself. “People are genuinely unhappy with the emir passing the law under a decree,” said one local analyst, speaking in the days leading up to the election.

Almost 423,000 Kuwaitis were entitled to vote – 53 per cent of them women – but in the end just 163,000 made it to the polls, according to official figures. The lowest turnout was in the two largest constituencies where the tribal and Islamist groups that called for a boycott have traditionally been strongest. In the fourth constituency, turnout was 29 per cent, while in the fifth constituency it was just 21 per cent. One candidate – Nasser al-Shammari – managed to secure a parliamentary seat with just 520 votes.

For the country’s ruling elite, however, the number of votes that a candidate received is far less important than how they will act once they assume their seats. With far fewer Sunni Islamist and tribal MPs than before, there is now the prospect of a parliament that might be willing to work with the government, rather than against it. The country has been hamstrung for years by the repeated stand-offs between the elected parliament and the appointed cabinet, and a breakthrough is desperately needed for the sake of its future economic health.

Minority representation

For minority groups there was also success. Smaller tribes managed to pick up more seats than usual and Shiites, who make up about 30 per cent of the population, won 15 seats in the 50-member chamber. It was their highest ever return and also marked the first time they had gained seats in all five constituencies. Three women also won seats: Maasouma al-Mubarak in the first constituency, Safa al-Hashem in the third and Thekra al-Rasheedi in the fourth.

Perhaps the biggest achievement was that the elections remained peaceful, particularly given the mood in which they were staged. At one stage in the campaign, Kuwaitis were becoming dangerously polarised and violence appeared to be close to the surface of society. Illegal demonstrations were gathering momentum and in October, the police deployed stun grenades and tear gas to disperse protesters.

“For a while things looked very shaky,” says the local analyst. “People got excited thinking something was going to happen. But I think the majority of Kuwaitis support the government.”

However, a few weeks before polling day, the country’s politicians seemed to take a step back from the brink. The unauthorised gatherings ceased and opposition leaders contented themselves with the weekly gathering near the parliament building that the authorities had sanctioned. In addition, the government had ordered candidates to remove many of their campaign posters from roadside billboards and the mood was so subdued that a casual observer in Kuwait might not have even realised an election was taking place at all.

An opposition rally on the eve of polling day was well attended, with some observers putting the number at about 250,000 people. The demonstrators walked the short distance along the dual carriageway of the Arabian Gulf Road from the Safir hotel to the iconic Kuwait Towers, waving flags and banners and releasing orange balloons – the colour that has come to symbolise Kuwait’s protest movement. But after a few hours they dispersed peacefully.

But if many groups came away from the election with reasons to be happy, there is also much that remains to be fought over. A cloud of uncertainty still looms over the political scene.

Voting unconstitutional

The most immediate issue is the ongoing legal efforts by some groups to declare the new voting system unconstitutional. An administrative court decided on 26 November that it could not hear the case and referred it up to the constitutional court. If the higher court sides with the opposition groups, another election will be needed, this time presumably under the previous system of four votes for a person.

The courts have not shied away from such decisions in the past. Kuwait held an election in February this year but the results were declared invalid by the constitutional court because of the way the emir had dissolved the previous parliament; a decision that paved the way for the poll this month.

If the new parliament is able to carry on and find common ground with the government to move the economy and major projects forward, this could lead some Kuwaitis to conclude that the obstructionism of the past should be left in the past. In that scenario, the opposition risk being frozen out of the decision-making process.

“For me, the opposition groups are playing a risky game,” says one banker in Kuwait City. “It looks like the new parliament will be less anti-government than the last one and if the new parliament starts to get things done then people might lose patience with the opposition.”

At the same time, there might now need to be more compromise shown by the government towards their opponents. Some things have clearly changed in Kuwait as a result of this election campaign, not least in the evolving relationship between the ruling elite and the public. In the past, Kuwaitis have been happy to criticise the decisions that the emir makes but not the man himself. During the recent campaign, that prohibition was broken and some opposition leaders targeted the emir far more directly than usual. Former MP Musallam al-Barrak, for example, told a rally on 15 October that “we will not let you, your highness, rule this country on your own”.

Al-Barrak and many others were arrested, including some for postings they had made on Twitter, but it will be easier for others to criticise the emir too in the future.

Unpopular leader

“The emir is very unpopular in Kuwait,” says another Kuwait analyst. “He has been the most unpopular emir they have had and clearly criticising the emir is not the taboo it used to be. As we saw last year in North Africa, once taboos are broken you can’t change that; once the genie is out of the bottle, it is impossible to get it back in.”

Kuwaitis do not share the same revolutionary zeal as citizens in some other countries in the region that have experienced full-scale revolt against their rulers. In large part this is because of the way they have benefited from the oil wealth that has flowed into the country since the first discovery of crude in the 1930s. But locals are also aware, and proud, of the relative political freedoms they enjoy when compared to the other Gulf monarchies and there seems little appetite for overthrowing the entire system.

That is not to say they cannot see the weaknesses of some of those in power. “The government is corrupt and corruptive,” says a local source. “They’ve mismanaged the country in terms of the economy and the relationship between the executive and the legislature.”

Having endured two elections already this year, there will be many in Kuwait hoping for a period of stability, in which some progress can be made on the significant economic challenges the country is facing. Unfortunately for them, it is not yet clear whether that can or will happen.