Kuwaiti emir courts tribal leaders as parliament dissolved – again

Yet another bout of political uncertainty lies ahead in Kuwait, after two constitutional court rulings that will force another election. The emir has been courting tribal leaders, apparently in the hope of staving off another significant boycott. Published in Gulf States News, 20 June 2013

On 16 June, Kuwait’s constitutional court made two key rulings that have once again set the election process in motion. The first was that the emiri decree which set up the National Election Commission in October was unconstitutional, and that parliament must be dissolved. The next parliamentary election will be the third in less than two years, following votes in February and December 2012.

The second ruling was more contentious. The court decided the emiri decree that introduced a new voting system before the last election was legitimate. It was that ‘one person, one vote’ system which led to the election boycott by Islamists, liberals and some of the country’s largest tribes, including the Awazem, Mutairi and Ajman. Their chief complaint was that the system discriminates against them, as they can no longer form the sort of voting blocs common under the old system, in which voters each had four votes and could spread their support between their own and allied groups.

Opposition politicians – many of whom have said they will again boycott an election held under the new law – immediately denounced the court’s decision. The Kuwait Times quoted a number of former MPs, including Waleed Al-Tabtabaei, who described the confirmation of the voting system as “the worst decision”, and Mubarak Al-Walan, who said the only way to avoid political stalemate was for the decree to be withdrawn. Emir Sheikh Sabah Al-Ahmed Al-Sabah called for national unity. “The ruling proves that Kuwait is a state of institutions ruled by the constitution and law. I call upon all Kuwaitis to respect and abide by the verdict,” he said in a televised speech.“ We have to put this issue behind us… it was a bitter experience.”

Courting tribal leaders

The court’s ruling was not altogether a surprise. As GSN wrote last issue, parliament had extended its working hours to try to get as much done as possible before a potential dissolution. MPs will have been relieved that the court ruled all legislation passed by the now-dissolved assembly would stand.

There were also signs that the emir has been anticipating a repeat election. In the weeks preceding the ruling, he publicly courted tribal leaders, in what seemed like a concerted effort to encourage them to drop their boycotts. On 27 May, the emir and Crown Prince Sheikh Nawaf Al-AhmedAl-Sabah attended a banquet held in their honour by the Awazem tribe, at which leaders expressed their loyalty to the ruling family. One senior figure, Falah Bin Eid Bin Jame, said his tribe “has always stood behind [the] Al-Sabah family since the rule of Sabah the First and continued until [the] present day”, in remarks reported by the state-run Kuna news agency. The emir said “this meeting shows clearly the close and candid relations between Kuwaiti people and ruler”.

Six days later, on 2 June, the emir was at a lunch hosted in his honour by Sultan Bin Salman Bin Hethlain on behalf of the Ajman and Yam tribes. At that event, Bin Hethlain spoke of a commitment to national unity but also set out a number of issues he said needed to be addressed, ranging from education to healthcare, housing and the status of the stateless Bidoon. The implicit criticism was leavened by praise for the emir’s openness and transparency.

“It seems the emir is on some sort of reconciliation track,” one Kuwait-based political analyst told GSN. “The tribal leaders are sucking up to the emir and the emir is flirting right back.” The process has continued since the court ruling. On 17 June, the emir and crown prince attended a banquet hosted by Adwan Bin Tawaleh of the Shammar tribe, where the host and guest spoke of the importance of national unity and safeguarding the constitution.

Such expressions of loyalty do not guarantee participation in any election, however. Before the last poll, Falah Faisal Al-Deweish of the Mutairi tribe said it was up to individuals to decide whether to vote or not. “Let those who wish to take part participate and those who want to boycott do so,” he said at a meeting between the emir and tribal elders in October, before adding: “We should remain around his highness the emir, the father of all.” It is worth noting that it is a member of the Mutairi who has become one of the establishment’s most prominent critics: former MP Musallam Al-Barrak,who faces a retrial in the case against him for insulting the emir.

Jury still out

The evidence so far is that the Al-Sabah charm offensive has been only partly successful. One liberal group, the National Democratic Alliance, has said it will compete in the next election, but the Progressive Movement, a larger group which contains Islamists, liberals and nationalists, says it will not.

Which way the tribal groups will go is less clear. Not all tribes are opposed to the electoral law: smaller ones have benefited from it, as they are now less likely to be squeezed out by larger groups. But without another change to the voting system, the larger tribes face the prospect of having their presence in parliament scaled back on a more permanent basis. If a deal cannot be struck behind closed doors, they may see a boycott as being in their best interests.

It seems inevitable that holding another election under the ‘one vote’ system will provoke a renewal of opposition rallies and protests, and the authorities have been trying to set out clear boundaries for any such action. The interior ministry has said it will not allow protests outside Erada Square, opposite the National Assembly building, and in his 16 June television address, the emir warned against sectarianism “which might trigger extremism and spark destructive discord”.

The date of the election also needs to be resolved. According to Article 107 of the constitution, it must be held within two months but, with Ramadan falling from early July until early August, some have suggested a postponement until after the summer. The constitution also says the old parliament must be reinstated if an election is not held in time. It is not clear which parliament would be recalled, however, given that the last two have been declared unconstitutional.