Perhaps to compete with Jordan, whose government seems to change every few weeks, Kuwait has elected its second parliament this year. This might seem vindication for the opposition, but it instead represents just the latest round of a political struggle in Kuwait that is not abating.
Two years of protest by opposition forces from 2009 until the end of 2011 led to the resignation of Prime Minster Sheik Nasser al-Mohammed al-Sabah, who was replaced as prime minister by Sheik Jaber al-Mubarak al-Sabah, also from the same ruling family.
Last February, the conservative/Islamist opposition won a majority of seats only to enjoy power for few months before the constitutional court decided to dissolve it.
Having replaced the prime minister after more than two years of protests and clashes between the parliament and the government, Kuwaitis may have thought this year would bring cooperation between the Sabah ruling family and the National Assembly.
Opposition leaders in the parliament kept up the pressure on the executive branch with more accusations of corruption, paralyzing the ability of the government to legislative and govern.
By June, the parliament was dissolved by the constitutional court. Those respectful of the judiciary suggested that the procedures of dissolving the 2009 parliament might have been done in the wrong sequence to later get the court to dissolve the February parliament. According to the constitution, the amir is the one given the power to dissolve the parliament but in this case, the constitutional court found the February parliament invalid and reinstated the 2009 parliamentarians.
A war of statements started after the parliament was dissolved. The opposition gave up on challenging the court’s decision to dissolve the parliament and instead pushed for new elections.
Months passed and tensions boiled over. Parliamentarians, writers, and social media critics were arrested for defaming the amir. Last October, four former parliament members were arrested for defaming the amir and his authorities. In the past few months, more than 10 Twitter users were arrested for the same charge including members of the ruling family critical of the amir’s policies.
Defaming the amir is a political and constitutional red line in Kuwait. The opposition kept up the pressure for new elections, and more controversy ensued when the amir responded by changing the electoral law. When opposition front man and parliament member Musalam Al-Barrak chanted his famous line addressed to the amir “we will not allow you to …” Kuwaitis reacted in three different ways: one group felt intimidated thinking the opposition wants to take over the country using conspiracies about some global Ikhwan power, another supported the opposition further and a third stood in the middle area in confusion. The third group was the most important as it joined the opposition in the three major protests known as "dignity marches." Their choice was made when the amir decided to issue an emergency decree making citizens vote for one candidate instead of four.
Changing the electoral law created the biggest protests in the country’s history as numbers at rallies reportedly reached into the hundreds of thousands. The new change that the amir made allows voters to choose one candidate instead of four. In a small country with five electoral districts, such a law makes it easy for candidates to get elected with a smaller number of votes. There is also more space for the government to fund and support certain candidates. Before the Amir’s decree, the government tried to challenge the system of five electoral districts legally, but the constitutional court rejected the request.
People had different reasons to object; some thought this new decision was made by abusing the constitution which allows the Amir to make emergency decrees if the country is in danger. Others thought the one-vote law will be a failed system especially in a small country like Kuwait. Proof came during the elections when a candidate in the fifth district was able to become a parliament member with only 520 votes, a number that would have never been enough for him to make the first 20 names in the last election.
Looking back to its experience in 1990, the fear of losing their parliament haunted Kuwaitis again. When the 1985 parliament was heated with MPs interrogating ministers for their corruption, the previous amir, Sheikh Jaber al-Ahmed, decided to terminate the parliament and constitution and form a new one called “The National Parliament,” which independent and opposition MPs boycotted.
A similar scenario is playing out now, but instead of the leftists leading the movement, the opposition today is labeled as tribal and Islamist.
The Kuwaiti government today accuses those in opposition, especially the tribes and the Muslim Brotherhood, of conspiring against the regime. In response, the urban middle class and the Shia get trapped in the middle and appear to side with the ruling authorities.
The opposition, as in 1989, decided to boycott last month’s elections on the basis of their rejection of the voting law. Since 2009, the conservative Popular Bloc started to wrestle with the former Prime Minister. They were joined later by The Ikhwan and some Salafis. This year witnessed a change in the shape of the opposition as young activists decided to become involved. The youth saw how the sectarian and conservative politics of the opposition pushed Kuwaitis away. They also were not happy with the performance of the opposition in the February parliament as they were hoping to see political parties installed and one electoral district. They wanted a change in the system that the opposition did not care or dare to demand.
Protests have not stopped and it is not clear how the government will deal with rallies in ways others than tear gas, arrests, and denouncing the opposition. The results of the new elections have raised many questions. Even on the day of elections, Kuwaitis seemed not care to discuss whom to vote for. The largest number of votes for an elected candidate did not surpass 6,000.
The percentage of voter turnout was 39%, according to official numbers.
This is exactly why the one-vote law was installed; to make it easier for authorities to get their candidates
elected either by 500 hundred votes or 5 thousand votes.
The new parliament has three women members, but this seems to go unheralded. Newspapers and users of social media did not even bother highlight the fact that women are back in the parliament. Surely, the biggest news comes with the Shia being the new majority in the parliament getting a record number of 17 seats.
This outcome may in the end only do harm to the sectarian relations in Kuwait as authorities use sectarianism to shape the conflict as social rather than political.
What will this parliament achieve? A full agenda of the issues that are rocking Kuwait could include: amendment of the controversial voting law; decrees not approved by parliament; the plight of minorities and stateless citizens; ways to limit sectarianism; strengthening laws to protect freedom of expression; moving toward an elected prime minister; institutions of political parties, a one-district law, and other constitutional reforms.
The likely outcome, however, is that all of these issues which are the cause of such political turbulence in Kuwait will be set back by the new parliament. The new National Assembly is instead more likely to defend executive authorities, facilitate sectarianism, and keep the money for projects and entitlements flowing.
Protests continue since the elections. The opposition, despite the boycott, has no plan for what to do next. The government is hoping for a period of relative quiet with some of the leading agitators on the outside of the National Assembly. But the cause of such agitation, which remains, has just moved from the parliament to the streets.
Mona Kareem is a blogger and poet from Kuwait writing about Gulf affairs. She is currently a doctoral student at Binghamton University in New York, on Twitter at @monakareem.