On July 27, Kuwaitis will vote in the nation’s third parliamentary elections since February 2012, and the sixth since 2006. This latest chapter in Kuwait’s exhausting political saga is the result of a June 16 court ruling that dissolved the previous parliament, but upheld the same contentious electoral law which brought it to power in the first place. Kuwait’s opposition movement had previously orchestrated a record-low voter turnout by calling to boycott the recent December 2012 elections, over their objections to that law.
Confusing to some, captivating to others, Kuwait’s political scene is at a crucial crossroads. Ahead of July 27 polls, Emir Jaber al-Ahmad al-Sabah has displayed cunning prowess in defeating his opponents within this system rather than without. In this battle of wits, the biggest casualty promises to be Kuwait’s once-vibrant political system.
Under Kuwait’s political system, pro- and antigovernment figures can be elected to parliament, but the Emir holds authority over cabinet formation and major decisions. In 2006, an electoral law was passed which divided the country into five districts, while allotting each citizen four votes. Under the 2006 law, the Emir’s political opponents were able to gain the majority of seats in parliament. In place of direct influence over the government, opposition-dominated parliaments have used their influence to summon cabinet officials to public corruption inquiries as a means of keeping the Emir from overextending his power.
In September 2012, the Constitutional Court ruled to uphold the 2006 law, after the Emiri-controlled government made attempts to alter it by dissolving the February 2012 opposition dominated parliament in June. In October 2012 the Emir intervened with a decree to reverse the 2006 law, giving each citizen one vote as opposed to four. The move enraged the opposition, sparking large demonstrations condemning the monarch’s perceived democratic infringement just as other nations in the region were reeling from similar political upheaval.
The opposition’s momentum peaked when they urged supporters to boycott December 2012 polls, resulting in a turnout of downwards of 40 percent according to the Ministry of Interior, and 27 percent according to the opposition bloc.
But their good fortune seems to have ended there. Without any significant political representation in the new parliament, the opposition’s diverse following had little influence on hot-button issues debated over the past year, ranging from unemployment, foreign labor, the plight of Kuwait’s ethnic Bedouin population, and others.
Although the December 2012 parliament was dominated by progovernment politicians, they scored major points with the general population by pressuring the oil minister to resign over a 2.2 billion USD payment to the United States over a contract cancellation deal with the state-owned Petrochemical Industries Company. The inability to participate in a major battle for Kuwait’s vital oil sector, along with other major issues, spawned internal divisions within the opposition leadership regarding the overall effectiveness of the boycott policy.
The Emir has since moved to exploit the opposition’s existing ideological, tribal and political differences, by improving relations with Kuwait’s influential tribal leaders, who have traditionally been important to maintaining order and stability in the country. This relationship had previously been strained, with tribal youth elements representing a majority of participants in opposition activities. By addressing long-standing grievances held by the country’s influential tribes, the government has deprived the opposition of a major support base. Major Bedouin tribes have held an average of seventeen seats in previous assemblies, while the December boycott left only one representative among the group.
Meanwhile, in April 2013, prominent opposition leader and former lawmaker Mussallem al-Barrak, once dubbed the “conscience of the nation,” was sentenced to five years in jail for insulting the Emir. Al-Barrak and nearly two hundred other activists are on trial for similar charges, including “threatening the nation’s stability.” Following al-Barrak’s guilty verdict, several hundred activists protested and scuffled with police near his office in the Andalus area outside of Kuwait City during a weeklong campaign denouncing the verdict. In May 2013, the court overturned his prison sentence, while his charges still remain.
Currently at least twenty-three opposition leaders and former lawmakers, including al-Barrak, have vowed to boycott the upcoming elections. However, numerous opposition groups that had previously boycotted the December 2012 elections, including members from the Islamic Salafi Alliance, liberal groups and the chief of Kuwait’s largest Bedouin tribe, the Awazem, announced their participation.
By preventing another repeat of the December 2012 election boycott, the Emir and his government will score a major victory over their opposition, perceivably confirming the legitimacy of their political system at a time of rampant political turmoil across the Arab world.
By failing to offer an alternative platform to solving the nation’s issues, in addition to not announcing a protest campaign for the upcoming polls, the opposition is in dire need of new tactics to pressure the government. High temperatures and the Ramadan period may decrease local interest in heading out to polling stations on July 27, possibly affording al-Barrak and other hardliners a muted victory by keeping turnout rates just above those in December 2012.
In actuality, neither the Emir nor his opposition will be able to claim true victory after the next elections. Years of political stagnation, government interference and corruption have taken their toll on the average citizen. Kuwaitis have become largely disenfranchised with their political system and leadership, particularly as five parliaments have been dissolved in recent years. For now, their grievances remain tamed by the government’s overarching subsidy programs and economic stability fed by the country’s oil wealth. Much like oil, however, the current indifference of the Emir’s subjects to a lack of progress in their country won’t last forever.
Edan Cohen and Daniel Nisman are senior analysts at Max Security Solutions, a geopolitical and security-risk consulting firm based in the Middle East.