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A Boiling Kettle: Kuwait's Escalating Political Crisis

[Kuwaiti men run away from police tear gas during a demonstration in Kuwait City on 21 October 2012. Image by Gustavo Ferrari/AP Photo.] [Kuwaiti men run away from police tear gas during a demonstration in Kuwait City on 21 October 2012. Image by Gustavo Ferrari/AP Photo.]

Power-sharing is always a messy affair. Under the best of circumstances, striking a balance between competing forces is a perpetual work in progress, with political actors continually vying for control of the driver’s seat. In advanced democracies, the structural checks and balances built into the system limit the powers of each branch and (largely) constrain the contest for control within predefined limits. In countries such as Kuwait, where democratization is an ongoing experiment, these limits themselves remain a subject of contestation that oppositional political forces exploit for often narrow, short-term interests. In fact, the escalating battle to reconstitute the country’s power structures has spilled out of the predefined limits for contestation and entered a new territory of uncertainty—street demonstrations have intensified, confrontations with authority are on the rise, and political groups from across the spectrum are boycotting the upcoming elections. In short, the legitimacy of the existing system has come under threat.

How did the situation reach this point? The heart of the issue revolves around the balance of power between an elected fifty-member assembly and an appointed sixteen-member cabinet, a hybrid political system that is neither fully democratic nor monarchical. Since the establishment of an elected parliament in 1962, Kuwait’s government has been experimenting with a power-sharing system that cedes considerable influence to the public but still maintains control over the executive branch, whose members are also granted automatic membership in the national assembly. The frictions between these two bodies have led to several political crises over the years, including two unconstitutional suspensions of parliament (1976 and 1986) and several constitutional dissolutions, five of which have occurred since 2006.

Ballets, Bribes, and Batons

The most recent direct confrontation occurred last Sunday and involved what some have declared to be the largest public protests in the country’s history. Tens of thousands of demonstrators took to the streets in protest of an emergency emiri decree by the government to modify the electoral law and change the number of votes allowed per citizen from four to one. Riot police confronted the protesters, resulting in numerous injuries and arrests.

While the consequences of the modified voting law and its ultimate sustainability remain to be seen, its history is telling. In 1981, Kuwait was officially divided into twenty-five voting districts, which many saw as a gerrymandered system favoring pro-government forces. In 2006, a youth-led movement—largely aided by new media technologies—used popular pressure to force the government to change the law to five districts, with each person casting four votes. Since then, the country has witnessed unprecedented government opposition in the parliament and constant stalemates that have hampered the country’s ability to pass important legislation and reforms.

In an attempt to get the country back on track and partially appease the opposition, in November 2011 the government accepted the resignation of then Prime Minister and the Emir’s nephew, Shaykh Nasser al-Mohammed Al Sabah, largely as a response to a corruption scandal that involved bribes to several parliament members allegedly in return for supporting government policies. With the PM’s replacement by his deputy, Shaykh Jaber al-Mubarak Al Sabah, in December the cabinet and parliament were dissolved and new ones formed. An opposition of mostly tribal and Islamist candidates won thirty-four of the fifty seats and dominated the new parliament. Not surprisingly, the newly formed government did not function effectively and the parliament was annulled by the constitutional court after just four intense months, based on the claim that it was unconstitutionally elected in the absence of a sitting cabinet. The situation spiraled downward from there. The reinstated (previous) parliament failed to reach a quorum and thus it was again dissolved in mid-August and new elections called. The cabinet then sent a proposal to the constitutional court requesting it to review the legality of the five-district system in an attempt to find justification for redrawing them in the government’s favor. On 25 September, while surrounded by riot police and protestors, the court rejected the government’s efforts. Taking another tack, the cabinet used its emergency powers, granted under the absence of a standing parliament, and issued the emiri decree that reduced the number of votes to one per citizen. Demonstrations immediately followed, violence ensued, and many MPs and other political groups announced that they will boycott the upcoming 1 December elections in protest.

Looming Questions

No one really knows the consequences of these events until they are put into practice. The new system should eliminate the illegal (but common) exchange of loyalist voters between powerful candidates in each district, since voters are now restricted to but one precious vote. This may make it easier for new individual candidates with strong resources to dominate the polls in the absence of such powerful alliances by their opponents. Assuming the 1 December vote goes ahead as planned, will the new members of parliament have popular legitimacy? Will they be able to function effectively without political veterans in their midst since so many have chosen to boycott the elections? Will they actually work well enough with the executive branch to push through many of the stalled and badly needed reforms? And, as is their right, will they review the emergency emiri decree that allowed them to gain power but is widely rejected by the major opposition forces and significant populations in the country? How will the opposition members who intend to boycott the elections try to wield their political influence in the absence of formal parliamentary authority? These are just some of the questions that loom large.

Only two things are certain: 1) the battle to redefine the country’s power-sharing arrangements is getting hotter, making predefined limits through which power is contested tenuous at best; and 2) tensions between the government and opposition will continue to escalate until something eventually gives. However, with both sides regularly engaging in practices that are questionably democratic, it is hard to envision an alternative arrangement in which power will be effectively redistributed to the ultimate benefit of the Kuwaiti people and not primarily for those who claim to represent their interests either by ballot or birthright.

And so the kettle continues to boil.

[This article originally appeared on the Middle East Institute, National University of Singapore "Insight" series.]

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