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A Battle For Legitimacy: Gauging Kuwait's Electoral Results

[A polling station in Kuwait City, February 2012. Image from Flickr/Kuwaitelections2012] [A polling station in Kuwait City, February 2012. Image from Flickr/Kuwaitelections2012]

On 1 December, Kuwait held an historic parliamentary election. What was extraordinary about the poll was that it took place despite a boycott by Kuwait’s main opposition groups, who represent a broad ideological spectrum and include many political veterans. As a result, Kuwait witnessed what appears to be the lowest voter turnout in its history. At roughly forty percent, it was neither high nor low enough to definitively support the competing claims about its legitimacy—though that has not stopped both sides from attempting to do so. Moving forward, both the government and the opposition have major obstacles ahead of them as each tries to undermine the other’s claims to moral authority. Importantly, the tactics they will deploy to do so are likely to have profound effects on the country’s political efficacy. With Kuwait representing an experimental approach of gradual democratization—in contrast to either the entrenched authoritarianism or the revolutionary upheavals of other countries in the region—the implications of this political moment likely stretch beyond Kuwait’s own provincial borders.

Just weeks before the election, Kuwait celebrated the fiftieth anniversary of its constitution. The events that marked the occasion might be seen as a metaphor for the country’s larger political communication environment: two competing sides using various forms of symbolism and spectacle to assert themselves as the true guardians of the country’s constitution. First was the government, which has an established authority over the nation’s official political symbols. Exploiting its vast resources, it staged an elaborate public celebration, replete with military planes, a public holiday, and a firework display so excessive it made the Guinness Book of World Records. All of this was an attempt to communicate that the government treasures the constitution and is its true custodian. Not to be outdone, tens of thousands of opposition supporters staged a rally the next day in front of the parliament building protesting the Emir’s modification of the electoral law. They too claimed to be the true protectors of the constitution and the broader interests of the Kuwaiti people. In recent months, opposition protests have intensified to new levels and orange has become part of their own arsenal of symbols—a color widely associated with a popular 2006 youth movement that successfully changed the country’s electoral districts. Instead of fireworks, they have resorted to new media to capture people’s attention, circulating images and videos of police brutality against the demonstrations. The first significant test of this competing pageantry came with the 1 December election, which the opposition urged citizens to boycott.

As mentioned, the actual turnout on election day was low, but not low enough so as to clearly validate the opposition’s position. Nor was it high enough to silence them. With the voting over, the government has moved ahead with the standard procedures for convening the new parliament and appointing a new cabinet of ministers. Meanwhile, opposition members continue to contest the legitimacy of the new parliament. They have staged regular rallies and marches since the results were announced and filed multiple cases with the constitutional court, asking it to invalidate the parliament. The opposition also created a special media team to keep their messages in the spotlight, and even threatened to establish a “shadow parliament” whose main duties will be “to monitor the [elected] parliament and decide how to deal with the National Assembly.” The effectiveness of such tactics remains unclear, but the intent is evident. Having excluded themselves from the formal mechanisms of power due to the boycott, the opposition intends to find other ways to keep pressure on the government or else risk the losing its popular support. This will be a tall order if the new parliament bucks the country’s trend and actually stays in power for a full four-year term, in which case protest fatigue will be a real threat for the opposition. Internal fragmentation is another concern. It is one thing to rally around a singular objective like boycotting polls, and quite another to maintain uneasy political alliances among competing ideologues whose collective goals and means will not be as coherent moving forward. Their primary objectives at the moment have shifted to an annulment of this parliament and a reinstatement of the old voting system. While the opposition will do what it can to ensure the parliament does not stand for a full term, the National Assembly’s actual potential to do so remains heavily dependent on those who actually won the seats.

Many of the fifty faces in the new parliament are little known. There are only a few veterans, three women, and fifteen Shiites (compared to seven Shiites in the previous parliament). Much has been said about what these new MPs will or will not do. However, the only generalizable certainty is that by participating in the elections, these candidates were more pro-government than oppositional. Time will tell if they will stay that way now that they wield parliamentary powers. Certainly, the opposition will be increasingly keen to turn them against the government if the constitutional court does not rule in the opposition’s favor to dismiss the elections as invalid. Perhaps the first real test of the parliament’s “loyalties” will be evident in how it works with the new cabinet—which includes the controversial Finance Minister Mustafa Al Shimali, the subject of a corruption scandal that plagued the 2009 Assembly. With a controversial makeup in both the parliament and the cabinet, a confrontational and vocal opposition, an increasingly fatigued public, and a country in need of fundamental and pressing reforms, this Assembly faces serious challenges with little political experience upon which to draw. In short, the voting may be over, but the battle for legitimacy is as fierce as ever and the stakes continue to grow.

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