Kuwait’s long-running series of political crises show no sign of abating. Twelve months after the Constitutional Court cited technical irregularities in the electoral decree paving the way for the opposition-dominated February 2012 election, the same court has ordered the re-running of the December 2012 election; the latter was won by pro-government supporters in the wake of an opposition boycott.
The latest decision will further fragment the political landscape by driving a wedge between the “moderate” opposition and those who advocate direct action in support of political reform. It also jeopardizes long-delayed and badly-needed investment projects by signaling that Kuwait is set for a renewed period of political instability and unpredictable decision-making.
The roots of the current political crisis lie in the massive street demonstrations that led to the resignation of the embattled prime minister, Sheikh Nasser bin Mohammed al-Sabah, in November 2011. Following the removal of his nephew, the emir – Sheikh Sabah al-Jabr al-Ahmad al-Sabah – issued decrees annulling the National Assembly (parliament) that had been elected in May 2009 and ordering fresh elections for February 2012. These resulted in a landslide victory for a loose coalition of tribal and Islamist opposition members of parliament (MPs) who won 35 of the 50 seats in parliament. The unprecedented outcome reflected the depth of public anger – galvanized by the Arab Spring – at the ruling al-Sabah family’s perceived unwillingness to cede more political power to elected institutions and representatives.
Opposition incensed by changes to the electoral law
One political earthquake was followed by another in June 2012 when the Constitutional Court annulled the February election and ordered the reinstatement of the Assembly elected in 2009 and dissolved in 2011. The vocal opposition saw the move as an attempt by the ruling family to strip them of their electoral gains and vowed to contest the decision through political means and direct action. Two attempts to reconvene the 2009 Assembly failed as the majority of reinstated MPs boycotted the parliamentary sessions in solidarity with the opposition movement. With Kuwaiti parliamentary politics threatening to grind to a halt, the emir inflamed the situation further with a decree in October 2012 reducing the number of votes each Kuwaiti could cast from four to one.
“Absent any agreement…it is likely that Kuwait’s volatile and unpredictable political arena will continue to impede economic development and delay critical investment in aging and decaying infrastructure.” – The Economist Intelligence Unit
The National Assembly election of December 2012 took place under the one-vote system and was boycotted by the majority of opposition groups, who contended that only parliament, not the emir, had the right to amend the electoral system. This touched a raw nerve in Kuwaiti politics, as the issue of electoral reform had been a major feature of youth-led public protests in 2005 and the subsequent opposition victory in the June 2006 polls for the National Assembly. With the ruling family perceived as having changed the electoral system arbitrarily in the past to dilute opposition forces – notably by reducing the number of constituencies from 25 to ten in 1981 – many Kuwaitis believed the emir was overstepping the boundaries of his authority by intervening directly in political life.
A stormy backdrop to the December 2012 election
The December election took place against a backdrop of extreme political tension and mass protests. The populist de facto leader of the informal coalition of opposition groups, Musallam al-Barrak, issued an unprecedented threat to the emir at a rally in October, warning him not to drag Kuwait back “into the abyss of autocracy.” The slogan “We will not allow you” subsequently became the defiant chant of a series of massive street demonstrations that shook Kuwait in the run-up to the election, resulting in sporadic clashes between groups of militarized youth and riot police across Kuwait City. The election itself returned a new political class to parliament as the boycott of most major tribes and opposition forces allowed new faces to emerge, including 17 Shi’ite MPs.
Shorn of critical voices, the pro-government Assembly began to move ahead with major infrastructure and investment projects, such as the Subiya Causeway and the Az-Zour North independent water and power plant. Such projects formed the cornerstone of Kuwait’s ambitious economic diversification and long-term national strategic vision, but had repeatedly been delayed by parliamentary infighting and the chronic breakdown of trust between the elected Assembly and the appointed government. Set against this belated attempt to rehabilitate Kuwait’s reputation as a welcoming place to do business were a number of populist initiatives relating to debt relief and direct cash grants to Kuwaiti citizens, which illustrated the double-edged nature of the conduct of politics in Kuwait.
Increased political uncertainty threatens to choke off investment
Although the Constitutional Court in its judgement on June 16, 2013, ruled that the switch to a single vote per citizen was lawful, it cited other flaws in the election law and ordered a dissolution of parliament. As a result, a new period of political uncertainty now lies in store for Kuwait. Already, the ruling has dealt a potentially fatal blow to the opposition coalition as the National Democratic Alliance announced it would reverse its boycott and contest the forthcoming election (the date of which has not yet been set). Their breakaway from the main opposition bloc accelerates the process of fragmentation after several of Kuwait’s largest tribes also declared their intention to re-enter the political process and run candidates.
In addition to a lack of consensus on “micro-political” approaches to electoral engagement, the major “macro-level” issues concerning the structure and balance of power between the government and the parliament also remain unresolved. Absent any agreement at either level, it is likely that Kuwait’s volatile and unpredictable political arena will continue to impede economic development and delay critical investment in aging and decaying infrastructure. This will set the Gulf emirate further behind its fast-moving regional rivals in Qatar and the UAE and provide succour to critics of the country’s democratic development who argue that authoritarian leadership delivers a more predictable and enabling environment for state-business relations in the Gulf.
This post has been authored exclusively for MEV by The Economist Intelligence Unit.
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This post has been authored by experts of The Economist Intelligence Unit.