By Suliman al-Atiqi
Kuwait concluded its sixth parliamentary election since 2006 on July 27 and by August had formed its 12th Cabinet. One of the nation’s biggest political crises since its founding in 1961 brought the country to a standstill in the aftermath of the emir’s controversial amendment to the electoral law in October 2012. With the country likely heading toward more stable times, it seems that the government achieved its intended outcome of undermining the tribal-Islamist opposition bloc by empowering independents through the new electoral law.
The political crisis can be traced back to May 2006, when the reformist branch of the opposition members of parliament attempted to reduce the voting districts from 25 to 5, while the government, through an appointed committee, recommended a more modest decrease to 10. The ensuing dispute led to the first time the emir, Sheikh Sabah al-Ahmad al-Sabah, dissolved parliament, after which new elections showed Kuwaitis’ support for the proposed change. By July 2006, the new electoral reform law easily passed in parliament and was approved by the emir, reducing the 25 districts to 5 with 10 candidates running per district – maintaining the 50 seat electoral total – but also introducing a system of four votes per person.
While the headlines focused on the reduction of districts, few at the time could have predicted the looming political crisis would be due to the seemingly arbitrary system of four votes per person. This number of votes, perhaps unknowingly at the time, proved beneficial to the Islamist-tribal coalition representing an emerging opposition bloc, largely due to a practice of patriarchal patronage inherent in tribal circles – if a candidate gains the support of the leader he gains the support of the majority of the entire tribe.
Tribes used this system to their advantage, holding primaries (though illegal) to sort out lists of preferred candidates beforehand and coordinate with other tribes to tailor the lists to the electoral district and thus gain a competitive edge. Hence if four tribes formed a coalition, their adherents could use their four votes to support the tribes’ preferred candidates equally, which often gave tribal candidates an advantage over independents who might actually have more supporters – particularly in the absence of legal frameworks for political parties which would offset this imbalance.
By 2012 two snap elections, in February and then December, vividly demonstrated the advantages of the four-vote system. In the February election, the Islamist-tribal coalition bloc representing the opposition dominated with 34 of the National Assembly’s 50 seats (drowning out all female candidates) – and paving the way for further confrontation with the government.
Ensuing political-legal disputes – exacerbated by a parliament dominated by the opposition – led to yet another snap election in December 2012. The emir, who according to the constitution can issue emergency decrees in the absence of an elected parliament, unilaterally amended the 2006 election law prior to the election so that each citizen would cast only one vote. Interpreting the amendment as an unconstitutional attempt to undermine their numbers, the dominant opposition bloc – mainly Islamist and tribal leaders – decided to boycott the election in protest.
Prior to the December 2012 election, various former opposition parliamentarians who were boycotting the elections predicted that the turnout would not exceed 15-25 percent. This false assessment was based on the fact that they had won about two-thirds of the seats in the February election, which they interpreted as having two-thirds of voters’ support. However, the boycotting parliamentarians failed to recognize the extent to which the four-vote system inflated their popularity. The 40 percent voter turnout in the December election (despite the boycott) shattered the perception of the tribal-Islamist majority and popularity, indicating they had the support of a third of voters – taking into account that the previous nonboycotted election had a 60 percent voter turnout.
Meanwhile the new one-vote law was understood by independents as a mechanism to level the playing field. Thus, despite a popular boycott for the December 2012 election, more candidates (306) decided to run than had sought office in the previous February election (286). Independent candidates understood that the one-vote rule gave everyone a more equal chance – in the absence of legal political parties which would serve as a counterbalance mechanism to the patriarchal patronage enjoyed among tribal and Islamist circles.
Last June 16, the constitutional court upheld the emir’s one-vote reform, but claimed the existing assembly was illegitimate based on a technicality and called for new elections. This allowed those who had boycotted the previous election to reconsider, and indeed some of the leading tribes (and some liberals) decided to rejoin.
Ultimately, the participation of the tribes (who perhaps realized their boycott was a “critical error” and that by being outside of parliament they could no longer influence the state) and the liberals (who were not against the new electoral law itself, but rather how it was changed) fractured the opposition between those who participated and those who continued to insist on a boycott. As a result, the divided members of the opposition rendered themselves obsolete as the country witnessed a 52.5 percent voter turnout in the July election – up from the boycotted election turnout of 40 percent, and 7.5 percentage points shy of the last nonboycotted election.
At the end of the crisis, it seems that the government achieved what it wanted – fracturing the tribal-Islamist coalition outside of parliament and minimizing their ability to win beyond their proportion – through the one-vote electoral law.
Suliman Al-Atiqi is an international affairs analyst from Kuwait working with the United Nations Development Program in Istanbul. This commentary first appeared at Sada, an online journal published by the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace (www.carnegieendowment.org/sada).
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on September 20, 2013, on page 7.