Why Kuwait's Elections Matter

Government ministers and MPs during the state opening of the Kuwaiti parliament’s 14th legislative term. Flickr/Creative Commons

Kuwait illustrates the oft-ignored tension between liberty and democracy.

It doesn’t take a lot of votes to get elected to Kuwait’s National Assembly. In the smaller districts a couple thousand ballots will do. But the legislature really matters.

Only Bahrain has a similar elected body, but that Gulf state has destroyed any pretense of democracy with the ruthless repression, backed by neighboring Saudi Arabia, of the Shia majority by the Sunni monarchy. No one looks at Manama as an example of Arab liberality.

Even Kuwait’s reputation has suffered as the government sought to stifle opposition in the aftermath of the Arab Spring. However, the November 26 poll, which I observed, gave the opposition almost half of the National Assembly’s fifty members.

Moreover, many candidates denounced the government for having stripped critics of their citizenship, jailed opposition activists for criticizing the Emir and changed the election rules. Kuwait is not Saudi Arabia. This contest seemed to move the small emirate—the number of eligible voters wouldn’t fill one congressional district—back toward its more open past, though significant challenges remain.

For Americans, Kuwait’s elections are unusual in a number of ways. There are five districts which elect ten legislators each. Voters, however, can cast only one ballot—down from four as recently as 2012. The campaign can run at most sixty days; in this case the Emir dissolved the National Assembly on October 16 and set the election less than six weeks later.

Campaigning is intensely personal and tribal. In fact, the Emir reduced the number of votes cast to thwart vote-rolling by tribes, some of which had gained special influence. Women won the right to vote in 2005, though polling places are segregated by sex, and make up more than half of those registered. However, only one female candidate won this time.

The voting process itself is festive, with streets leading to the polls lined with supporters and tables filled with food, drinks and campaign propaganda and paraphernalia. Women voters offer the most variety because their dress varies from stylish Western to full Islamic covering. The visual contrast mirrors divisions in the society itself.

Kuwaitis remain overwhelmingly pro-American and remember being rescued during the Gulf War. Even younger Kuwaitis talk about their family’s experiences during the Iraqi invasion. However, while Western-style liberals are prominent and visible—and often work with foreign visitors—Kuwait remains a conservative society. Women hold professional positions and drive, but for a time universities were segregated. Religious liberty is protected, but Western-style evangelism is absent. For the most part, government allows people to choose how to live, but not all are happy with that degree of freedom.

Indeed, the country illustrates the oft-ignored tension between liberty and democracy. There are no parties in Kuwait, but in the new legislature those supporting the government are about sixteen, while 24 are thought to compose the opposition and the rest independent. However, the opposition is badly split, ranging from liberal to Islamist. They often cooperate on political reform but differ dramatically on social issues. That division helps explain the overwhelming reelection of the previous National Assembly speaker and narrow selection of the new deputy speaker, both of whom were backed by the government.

The Islamist block, made up of Salafists and members of the Muslim Brotherhood, accounts for about a fifth of the body’s members. That’s probably not enough to enact their distinctly anti-liberal agenda. However, the National Assembly election in February 2012, conducted amid charges of widespread corruption and undue government influence, yielded a very conservative, traditionalist opposition, which promptly began discussing measures to impose the death penalty on blasphemers, close Christian churches and impose a dress code. Thankfully, the unelected monarch said no. For instance, the Emir noted that the constitution protected religious liberty, hence no church burnings.

That poll and the following election were voided for technical reasons. The July 2013 contest, boycotted by the opposition, yielded a far friendlier majority for the government. But even it was unsympathetic to cutbacks, however modest, in Kuwait’s generous welfare state.

It’s an issue which officials have talked about whenever I visited over the last nearly two decades. And the issue has gained urgency with the dramatic drop in oil prices. In late November, before the vote, Information Minister Sheikh Salman Sabah Al-Salem Al-Homoud Al-Sabah told me that, “Kuwait is trying to move away from a welfare state to a state of responsibility with the participation of its citizens.” He acknowledged the political barriers to doing so, but argued that “we have to work towards creating awareness in the population to take more responsibility.”

Indeed, when convening the new National Assembly, the Emir spoke of “inevitable” cutbacks and sacrifices. However, a majority of the new members campaigned against reductions in the panoply of government subsidies and salaries available to Kuwaitis. Everyone wants reform, but few believe that giving up their benefits counts.