One who follows the political theatre in Kuwait with its changing faces can barely remember when the political crisis started. Since the early 1960s, when Kuwait adopted a modern constitution and moved towards modern governance, various political crises have emerged here and there, between different governments and political opposition, or between nationalists and Islamists. This happened steadily till the 1990s and in the aftermath of the Iraqi invasion. At that point, the crises moved from occasional to regular and now it has brought us to events of the last few weeks, when people moved to the streets, uncertain of results.
There are a number of interpretations — Kuwaiti political groups think that the ruling family or a certain influential section within it does not really believe in the modern way of government and are reluctant to accept power sharing. They are more at ease with traditional “Subject and Rulers” relationship which was practised for a long time — this gives them a free hand at power with no questions asked. The more realistic interpretations blame the recurrent crises on the malpractices within the system itself, as it has a structural flaw. It has adopted mass suffrage, but not modern politics based on the system of political parties. So people organised themselves the way they know best, through tribalism and sectarianism, which makes the whole system unable to serve modern society and one which further weakened the state.
Whatever the reasons, it is clear that the political crisis in Kuwait is a snow-balling phenomenon that has gathered momentum over the past 50 years — it started small and with time has become big and difficult to manage. The 50 members of parliament have their own individual agendas, based on providing services to their constituency members, regardless of the rules and regulations, as they know the only way to survive is by breaking the law. Any member in the government who does not adhere to demands will be questioned and subsequently removed from the cabinet. At the end of the day, the parliament member is at the mercy of the electorate and the minister is at the mercy of the member of parliament — the victim in this tussle is the ordinary citizen.
Over the years, there was a change of ministers every 12–15 months and frequent changes to the whole cabinet. The parliament itself has been either dissolved for an early election or suspended for a period of time — almost half of 14 sessions of parliament between 1963-2012 were dissolved by the Emir, for one reason or another. Gerrymandering was done to find ways and means of stability, but resulted in failure. In 2006, people thought that the size of the constituency was the problem. So a movement was started by young people, later joined by politicians, demanding that Kuwait should be divided into five constituencies, each having 10 members of parliament and people must choose only four candidates. This was put in practice in 2008, 2009 and the 2012 elections, but the crises did not go away. That is why the Emir of Kuwait decided to move to the system of one-man, one-vote in the coming elections scheduled for December 1, the underlying assumption being that the move would probably ease the tense political situation. However, this move led to what we are facing now and what I call an unexpected political storm, bringing people on to the streets and politicians insisting on returning to the old rules — five constituencies with the voters having to choose four candidates.
These practices make it easy for some of them to form alliances with others and get elected to the parliament.
Nobody is certain if the idea of one-man, one-vote will work, but the opposition and a number of independents are threatening to boycott the coming elections next month. The official stand is the Emir has a constitutional right to exercise emergency powers and change the voting system; the new parliament later can approve this emergency decree or reject it. However, from previous experience, that is when the government changed the system of voting from 10 constituencies to 25, the parliament at the time agreed to it. So the opposition believes that this can happen again.
The opposition groups are determined to take to the streets and ask the people not to vote, as a boycott could force the government to change course. The government, on the other hand, is determined to carry on with this election. However, the two sides appear to be on a collision course. No one at this stage knows what will happen. Taking the tense regional environment in the so-called Arab Spring countries into account, and the tensions involving US, Israel and Iran, coupled with the events in Bahrain, Iraq and Syria, the people of Kuwait are in the grip of uncertainty. Things can go wrong any time to an extent that both the government and the opposition might find themselves unable to control the situation.
There are two politically organised groups, both of them with a religious background. The the largest is Hadas, that is a breakaway Kuwaiti branch of the Muslim Brotherhood. The other is a Shiite faction that calls itself ‘People’s Islamist Group’. All other political groups are either small in number or of leftist or nationalist persuasion. Apart from these, there are individuals calling themselves “independents”. Those belonging to the People’s Islamist Group are sitting on the fence, watching the events to gauge where they are heading. There are others who have already announced their willingness to participate in the upcoming elections. But larger parties, like the Hadas, and also the independents, have already announced their boycott on the social media and through political demonstrations.
To some observers, the Muslims Brotherhood currently has the momentum in the Middle East as they have prevailed in Egypt, where it matters, Tunisia, Yemen and to some extent also in Libya. They will probably emerge at the top in Syria, too. So some observers in Kuwait fear that the Hadas leadership has a hidden agenda, using the popular dissatisfaction to escalate their demand to make Kuwait a constitutional monarchy, under which the ruling family can rule, but not govern! This will enable them to partly control the political power they need, like their ideological brothers in the Arab Spring countries. This may probably be an exaggeration, but a good number of people believe in it, as they have been the driving force behind most of the mass demonstrations.
Election will be held on the basis of the system the Emir mentioned in his speech on November 6. The big question, however, is how many Kuwaitis are actually going to vote? Some are wondering what kind of persons will be running. The whole plan could collapse if there is a poor turnout on election day. One of the tactics employed by the government is to suggest that if anybody wants to confront the Emir’s decree in the future, he can do so by approaching the Constitutional Court and the government will be obliged to accept any ruling from that court. To some, that is one of the government’s way of buying time, defusing the pressure and finding a new power base. The coming few weeks will not be easy for Kuwait politically, since both sides are ignoring simple facts and that is no way to move forward, unless Kuwaitis mend the old ways and embrace long-ignored reforms — not only of electoral law, but also of the constitution itself. No nation on earth has written a political document and stuck to it with no change in 50 long years.
Mohammad Alrumaihi is a professor of political sociology at Kuwait University.