Another political false dawn in Kuwait

Kuwait’s Constitutional Court has ruled that parliament must be dissolved and fresh elections be held. However, its much-criticised new voting system has been left in place. Published in MEED, 19 June 2013

Kuwait is preparing for yet another parliamentary election and more political turmoil, after two critical rulings by its Constitutional Court on 16 June. It will be the third national vote in Kuwait in less than two years, following elections in February and December last year, both of which have now been nullified.

The first of the court’s rulings was that the current National Assembly (parliament) should be dissolved because an emiri decree to set up the National Election Commission in October last year was unconstitutional. The decision both forces new elections in Kuwait and sets the scene for what is likely to be an impassioned debate about the court’s second ruling: to leave in place a new voting system introduced by another emiri decree ahead of the last election.

Many opposition politicians had objected to the voting system and boycotted the December election as a result. Large protests became a common sight on the streets of Kuwait City ahead of polling day, but the election itself went ahead without incident.

Royal backing

Emir Sheikh Sabah al-Ahmad al-Jaber al-Sabah immediately tried to head off any renewed bout of public protests, delivering a speech on national television on the evening of 16 June, just hours after the court issued its rulings.

“I repeat what I have said before: that I accept … the ruling of the Constitutional Court regardless of its content, and I call upon all citizens to respect it and abide by it,” he said. “Now, we have to leave this issue … behind us and continue the march of reform and development.”

Even before the court had issued its ruling, the Interior Ministry issued a statement warning that it would not tolerate any protests other than in Erada Square, the area in front of the parliament building that has become the focal point for opposition rallies.

At the time of writing, it was not clear when a new election would be held. According to Article 107 of the constitution, it should happen within two months of any dissolution, but the holding of any election campaign will be made more difficult by the fact Ramadan is due to run from early July until early August this year.

In the meantime, Islamist politicians and tribal groups who boycotted the last election face the critical question of whether to take part in the next one. Given the repeated avowals of some opposition figures that they will refuse to take part in any election under the current voting system, it will be difficult for them to get involved.

Their objection to the voting system is based on the claim it artificially boosts the election result in favour of pro-government MPs at their expense.

Kuwait had previously used a system in which each voter had four votes to share between the candidates. That created fertile ground for voting pacts to emerge between different opposition groups. Their supporters would vote for their own candidates as well as allied ones from other groups, creating a formidable block of MPs in parliament. The system of one vote per person that was introduced for the last election made such deals all but impossible.

It is difficult to judge how well or badly the opposition groups would have fared if they had thrown themselves into the last election campaign. Their boycott, however, meant the country has seen a rare period in which parliament and the government have managed to work together to pass some long-awaited reforms.

Kuwait’s political scene has traditionally been defined by a pattern of confrontation between the legislature and the unelected executive, which has in turn often led to policy paralysis. With far fewer opposition MPs in the last parliament, the chamber proved more conciliatory and was able to strike deals with the government.

Political cooperation

For example, in the early months of the new parliament, MPs agreed to the privatisation of Kuwait Airways. There was also progress with some major infrastructure projects and a compensation deal with Iraq was approved. All these issues had been hanging over previous parliaments, but they had proved unable to pass the necessary legislation.

“There is no doubt that this parliament has been a bit more cooperative than previous parliaments,” said one analyst in Kuwait early in the year. “There have been some laws passed. The level of cooperation [with the government] has been a bit higher. It’s not perfect, but it’s better than it was.”

However, as time passed the optimism slowly faded, to be replaced by a more familiar sense of inertia and conflict between the legislature and the executive. One member of the cabinet, Oil Minister Hani Hussein, resigned rather than face potentially uncomfortable questioning by MPs and it had looked like others could follow, before the Constitutional Court rulings made such issues moot.

Hussein’s decision to step down on 27 May followed a familiar pattern in Kuwait. Previous parliaments have regularly called government ministers to appear before them in what are known in Kuwait as ‘grillings’. In turn, many of those ministers have decided to resign rather than face public scrutiny and a possible no confidence vote against them.

In Hussein’s case, MPs had wanted to question him over the $2.2bn the country is paying US firm Dow Chemicals as compensation for the collapse of the K-Dow petrochemicals joint venture in late 2008.

MPs had also called for grillings of Interior Minister Sheikh Ahmad al-Humoud al-Sabah on several issues ranging from a perceived failure to cooperate with parliament to national security concerns, and Health Minister Mohammad al-Haifi over water contamination.

Outreach strategy

The weeks leading up to the court rulings offered some indications that the regime was expecting new elections to be held before long. In particular, the emir and his half-brother, Crown Prince Sheikh Nawaf al-Ahmad al-Jaber al-Sabah, had been reaching out to the tribal leaders, who had refused to take part in the last election. This appeared to be an attempt to lay the groundwork for tribe leaders to take part in any new election. They attended a series of banquets held in their honour in late May and early June, at which a succession of tribal leaders voiced their loyalty to the Al-Sabah family and the regime.

“Animosity and tension are detrimental to the wholeness of the society,” said Fehhad Matir Mubarak al-Milabi, an Azmi tribesman, after one such banquet held on 27 May, according to remarks reported by the official Kuna news agency. “Therefore, these unwanted acts should be avoided to keep the cohesiveness of national unity.”

In addition, Musallam al-Barrak, one of the country’s most prominent opposition politicians, had his five-year prison sentence for insulting the emir quashed by an appeals court in late May, although he is now due to be retried. That case had started after Al-Barrak appeared to question the authority of the emir, telling an election rally on 15 October: “We will not let you, your highness, rule this country on your own.”

In recent months, the wind has appeared to be going out of the opposition’s sails too, despite their promises after the last election to maintain their street protests even after the new parliament had convened. The sort of public demonstrations that became commonplace in late 2012 have all but disappeared from the streets of Kuwait. The recent combination of public avowals of loyalty and a quietening of activity by opposition groups has led some to think there must be some deal-making taking place behind the scenes.

“You don’t see any protests anymore in Kuwait,” says Alanoud al-Sharekh, the Kuwait-based corresponding senior fellow for regional politics at the UK’s International Institute of Strategic Studies. “The fight has gone out of the opposition and they seem to have lost their focus recently. That tends to mean there are some serious negotiations going on.”

If the opposition groups do decide to contest the next election, the outcome is likely to be a parliament similar in character to most of the ones of recent years, although the confirmation of the new voting system means they could take up a smaller proportion of the chamber than in the past.

Another scenario is that opposition groups will step up their activities once more. The Constitutional Court may have issued its verdict on the current voting system, which cannot be challenged, but that does not mean another new voting system could not be brought in. In addition, there are a number of other issues that could be used as rallying cries, ranging from a shortage of housing to graduate unemployment.

Full circle

In any case, it looks as if Kuwait could be facing a period in which parliament and the government regularly clash once again. A time when ministers – even the entire cabinet – are forced to resign, rather than face the public scrutiny MPs demand.

In essence, that would mean the past few months will have represented little more than a brief diversion from the norm of Kuwaiti politics, and the progress with some critical reforms could grind to a halt.

“You can’t change the nature of the beast,” says one observer in the city. “The parliament passed all the legislation that was hanging around, but that doesn’t stop the unions from striking, it doesn’t stop people demanding wage increases, and it doesn’t stop the flow of corruption. All these things are continuing in spite of the fact that this [has been] a more cooperative parliament than before.”

If nothing else, Kuwait is living up to its reputation as an unpredictable and turbulent quasi-democracy.