On December 1, 2012, more than a third of eligible Kuwaiti voters went to the polls for the second time in 10 months to elect yet another parliament. Kuwaitis have been to the polls five times over the past six and a half years and have elected five parliaments, all of which were dissolved before the end of their terms. On top of that, Kuwait has witnessed the changing of three Emirs, three prime ministers, three foreign ministers, 10 cabinets and two electoral laws. These changes have caused a lot of consternation and have led to a lot of disillusionment with the political system, especially with the heightened polarisation and fragmentation that have become the hallmark of Kuwaiti politics today.
Kuwait and its people are witnessing unprecedented protests, showdowns and clashes between youth/activists and security forces in a rich and super-welfare society and a rentier state over the outcome of the newly-elected parliament. In addition, two major opposition rallies — the so-called “March of Dignity” — attracted a mammoth turnout. Part of this acrimony is due to the bitter feelings harboured by the opposition, which had a majority in the defunct parliament. Elected in February 2012, it was nullified by an unprecedented Constitutional Court ruling, thereby bringing to a sudden end a parliament in which the current opposition formed a majority with 34 MPs.
The election of the 15th parliament on December 1 witnessed the most polarised and divisive atmosphere in Kuwait’s political history, with the lowest voter turnout ever. Even if we take the government’s figure of 40.3 per cent of eligible voters, or the High Election Commission’s statistics of 39.6 per cent, which are much higher than the opposition estimates of only 28.8 per cent, it makes voter turnout the lowest ever. Moreover, the Kuwait National Assembly polls were boycotted for the first time in 50 years by the opposition.
The Kuwaiti political scene is very murky now and is not what it used to be. The new parliament is devoid of the opposition and all major political blocs and groups — Islamists, liberals, the largest tribes along with the youth have all boycotted the election because of the amendment of the election law. This limited the choice for more than 422,569 voters to elect one candidate, doing away with the selection of four candidates per voter, which has been the case since the new electoral districts were drawn in 2006. The opposition rejected the amendment because according to them, it favoured the pro-government candidates and encouraged vote buying, sectarianism and did not heal the rift in Kuwaiti society. In addition, it should be up to the newly-elected parliament to draw the new electoral law. The Emir and those who support the law to amend the electoral law, on the other hand, believe it is integral to preserve “Kuwait’s national security”.
I find it appropriate to remind my readers about what I had written in numerous articles in this column over the past few years, decrying the failing image of the Kuwaiti model as a harbinger that inspires others and one that could be emulated. Disgruntled by the political impasse, the repeated crises, the acrimonious relations between the two branches of the political system — the crumbling infrastructure, the poor services for a rich country like Kuwait that has been registering budget surpluses for years, things— have finally reached a tipping point. This dilemma compelled Reuters to write in an analysis recently about Kuwait with a provocative title: ‘Money-rich but backward: Politics, Oil, Poison Kuwait Economy’!
On September 30, I had written a column titled ‘Ending Kuwait’s gridlocked politics’. In that, I commented on the landmark Kuwaiti Constitutional Court ruling, after the court rejected the government’s petition on the constitutionality of the 2006 electoral districts law. I opined then, as I do now, that Kuwaitis were caught “in the high drama of politics. Kuwaitis and those who are interested in Kuwait’s political system ... have been subjected to another chapter of high-stakes politics ...”
Once again Kuwait is witnessing a new chapter of political drama and highly charged politics. What has become the landmark of Kuwaiti politics is being highlighted time and again by the endless acrimony between the government and the feisty parliament. Kuwait’s gridlock politics and the impasse and malaise of the political system have disillusioned Kuwaitis as they see their cherished political system becoming dysfunctional and have disappointed those observers and people who have for long admired the robust Kuwaiti political system.
The latest election has brought to the fore a fractured, polarised and divided Kuwait like never before. The debate, for the first time, was not on who would win or lose, but what would be the voter turnout percentage. Both sides, the government and the opposition, wanted to use the voter turnout percentage as a yardstick for the referendum over the amended election law that limited the choices of Kuwaiti voters.
Now it is clear that Kuwait has entered uncharted territory in its political landscape. It is abundantly clear too that the new parliament and the divisive mood over the electoral law and necessity decrees, as well as the government-vs-opposition showdowns, will be solved neither through a boycott of the elections nor by participating in them.
Kuwait’s political situation is mired in fog at present. The opposition is out because it chose to boycott the election and it will thus have no role to influence the debate from within.
Furthermore, the new parliament is over-represented by minorities, especially the Shiites who have aligned with the government and have seen their numbers increase from seven MPs in the last parliament to 17 in the new one — in addition to a large representation by smaller tribes and ethnic groups. There is no quick reconciliation in sight to end the bickerings and differences in Kuwaiti politics.
Thus, Kuwait’s political malaise will unfortunately deepen with time, but then that has been the case with all democracies.
Professor Abdullah Al Shayji is the chairman of the Political Science Department, Kuwait University. You can follow him on Twitter at www.twitter.com/docshayji