Kuwait’s parliamentary elections on Nov. 26 produced significant changes in the balance of power between opposition groups and the state. On Oct. 16, the Emir of Kuwait Sheikh Sabah al-Ahmad al-Sabah dissolved Parliament and announced snap elections in order to diffuse opposition to subsidy cuts and consolidate parliamentary support. Opposition groups that had boycotted the 2012 and 2013 elections decided to participate this time, taking advantage of citizens’ frustration. They campaigned on promises to limit austerity, solve Kuwait’s housing crisis and eliminate corrupt government spending.
However, Kuwait’s government took steps to mitigate opposition wins by enforcing new laws barring those who criticized the emir or religion from running. During the short campaign season Kuwait’s courts annulled the candidacy of dozens of opposition candidates. The government also turned a blind eye to illegal tribal primaries that took place in several electoral districts in Kuwait to avoid further agitating tribal opposition. While these primaries had taken place in previous elections, this time the results of many of them were posted on social media without fear of repercussion. Despite these measures, opposition candidates returned from four years of boycotts to capture almost half of Parliament’s 50 seats. In fact, only 20 MPs were re-elected by polls whose turnout reached 70 percent.
As Kuwait analysts have pointed out, these results indicate a deep dissatisfaction with the government’s policies. These frustrations are shared by citizens across the Gulf Arab countries, whose governments have struggled to react to the economic fallout of low oil prices. Kuwait is unique, however, in that its politics are relatively democratic. Kuwait’s Parliament can introduce legislation and interrogate government ministers. These powers allow citizens to challenge the government through formal institutions and amplify the importance of parliamentary elections in Kuwait as opposed to other Gulf Arab countries. The latest elections position Kuwait’s opposition as a genuinely powerful force whose electoral gains have complicated but not foiled the government’s plans to ensure financial sustainability while maintaining political stability.
Though parliamentary elections were initially scheduled for July 2017, the government’s decision to move them to November 2016 was largely intended to consolidate support. By this measure, snap elections were an unsuccessful tactic. The new Parliament’s opposition is diverse – including Islamists, nationalists and leftists – but likely to unite around common economic frustrations. Two opposition figures, Abdullah al-Roumi and Shuaib al-Muwaizri, have even challenged government loyalist and incumbent Marzouq al-Ghanim for the position of Parliament speaker. While Ghanim will likely keep his seat, he has been worried about opposition pressure. Days before the election, he gave a two-hour speech characterizing the opposition as a “gang plotting to capture the government.” These comments illustrate the new threat opposition groups pose to the government’s power to advance its agenda.
Fuel subsidy cuts were already implemented in Kuwait in September 2016, but the opposition is well-positioned to oppose other painful but necessary austerity initiatives. Even if the government wins parliamentary votes for such initiatives, it will likely pay a high cost in public approval and the embarrassing questioning of its cabinet members in Parliament. These costs reflect the genuine power Kuwait’s opposition now holds in the democratically elected Parliament. Unlike others in the region, Kuwait’s Parliament does not simply rubber-stamp the emir’s policies. There are methods for circumventing Parliament’s power – for example, the emir can issue decrees – but it can still influence important policy outcomes or delay action on unpopular policies.
That being said, had the government not held snap elections, it could well have contributed to the sense of stagnation, frustrating many Kuwaitis. Nor would the government have found it easier to pass its agenda: This approach would have been risky for the government because frustration in Kuwait has historically caused political instability. In 2011, thousands of Kuwaitis took to the streets to protest corruption and advocate for their rights. Police responded to the protests with tear gas, water cannons and arrests. In the years that followed, the government arrested several social media activists for criticizing the emir, a crime in Kuwait. As recently as April 2016, oil workers went on a three-day strike to protest pay cuts. The strike caused significant anxiety for Kuwait’s government because oil revenues constitute the majority of the country’s income. The government can control instability, but at a high cost to its public credibility and reputation among Kuwaitis. Compared to the threat of protests or strikes, an election with high turnover was the preferable option for Kuwait’s government, even given the risk the opposition would win seats.
In addition, voting laws in Kuwait mitigated the unification of opposition, particularly among tribal groups. The “one person, one vote” amendment to the October 2012 electoral law reduced the number of candidates Kuwaitis could vote for on their ballots from four to one. With four available votes, many tribal Kuwaitis first voted for their district’s tribal candidate, who was supported by a coalition of both significant and minor tribes. They were then free to invest their three remaining votes elsewhere. This system favored powerful tribes such as the Mutair, Ajman and Awazem.
With only one vote, however, the opportunity cost of voting for the tribal coalition’s preferred candidate was much higher. The effects of this change were limited in Kuwait’s 2013 elections because many tribal groups boycotted them. This time, however, most tribal groups participated, and candidates from less-influential tribes convinced constituents to support them over the one preferred by the tribal coalition. As a result, Kuwait’s new Parliament includes representatives from less-powerful tribes, including the Anazzah and Dosari. Yet the broader representation of tribes in Parliament may make it more difficult for the opposition to unify. While these tribes are large in number, they receive less state patronage and thus have a less-developed relationship with the government than the Mutair and Ajman – meaning they also have less incentive to support the government’s agenda. The less-powerful tribes may use their increased influence to take stances with which the more-powerful tribes disagree. Thus while the government now faces a larger opposition, it is also a more diverse one. By exploiting these divisions, Kuwait’s government may be able to mitigate opposition gains.
Despite each of these significant changes to the makeup of Kuwait’s Parliament, the underlying problems facing Kuwaiti society remain. To prevent further shifts in the balance of power, the government will have to rely on its ability to navigate the new political terrain it created by holding snap elections. While the opposition may have difficulty coalescing at first, unpopular austerity measures and the inevitably slow pace of bureaucratic change will accelerate the process. One potential asset the government has is that new Parliament members will be expected to live up to their campaign promises. With more actors who have skin in the game, citizens’ frustration toward unpopular but necessary policies may not fall on the government alone. It remains to be seen whether this responsibility will create deadlock in the Parliament or an impetus for difficult but necessary change.
Scott Weiner is the chair of the Middle East Discussion Group of Young Professionals in Foreign Policy. He recently completed his Ph.D. in political science at George Washington University. 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 December 09, 2016, on page 7.