1 November 2012

Jane Kinninmont

Deputy Head and Senior Research Fellow, Middle East and North Africa Programme


The latest escalation of the political crisis in Kuwait reflects an increasingly untenable relationship between the most powerful parliament in the Gulf and an executive that has resorted to dissolving the parliament five times in the past five years. 

Kuwait has a strong tradition of checks and balances on the monarchy. It seems likely that most Kuwaitis want to preserve both the monarchy and the relative freedoms and powers of the parliament. But the current division of powers between the parliament and the executive is producing a cycle of stalemates and crises that are seriously hindering the country's economic development. 

As Kuwait has the oldest and strongest parliament in the Gulf, the situation will be closely watched by other Gulf countries struggling with their own internal political pressures. Kuwait’s parliament has significant powers compared to its counterparts in other Gulf countries, but MPs have more ability, inclination and incentives to block government legislation, question ministers and flag corruption than to produce positive progress on policy.

One of the key problems is that there is no clear mechanism for resolving disputes between the parliament and the government. Instead, when the two sides clash – typically over parliamentary requests to question ministers, which ministers typically dread – the quick-fix solution has been to dissolve the body and call fresh elections. 

As explored in a recent paper, dissolutions have become routine in the past five years, but have only exacerbated the underlying problems: MPs expect to have no more than a year in office and have far more incentive to make a name shouting about corruption, or obtaining handouts for their constituents, than developing longer-term policy projects that they will never be able to see through.

Shaking up the Law

Against this backdrop of frustration, two very different approaches to a solution have emerged. The political opposition, emboldened by a majority vote in the last election and by the trends in the wider region, is seeking a greater share of power, while the emir, Sheikh Sabah Al-Ahmad Al-Jaber Al-Sabah, has announced that the electoral law will be rewritten in a way that happens to weaken the opposition's ability to form a coalition. 

The unilateral change to the electoral law was bound to be controversial. The existing electoral law was passed in 2006 by an overwhelming majority of MPs, drawing inspiration from years of campaigning by civil society groups seeking electoral reform. This time, attempts to change the electoral law have been entirely top-down, reflecting the growing frustration of the ruling elite with a parliament that often obstructs their plans, and, in particular, with the MPs that were elected in February of this year. In those elections, a loose opposition coalition of Islamists (mainly Salafists and Muslim Brotherhood), tribal candidates and secular nationalists, won some 70% of seats between them. This produced a parliament that was less pliable than its predecessor, which was dissolved in late 2011 after large-scale, youth-led protests against corruption. After just four months, however, the constitutional court said the elections had been invalid and the parliament had to be dissolved. New elections have been scheduled for 1 December.

In the meantime, the government has announced changes to the electoral law that are expected to disfavour the opposition. While many Kuwaitis share a desire for a more stable parliamentary set up, unilaterally changing the electoral law was likely to provoke unrest. So too was the decision by a popular opposition leader, Musallam Al Barrak, to make a speech in late October against the changes in which he directly criticised the emir himself, leading thousands of protesters in chants of 'we will not allow you [to take the country into dictatorship]'. 

The protest was dispersed with tear gas and rubber bullets, and Kuwait has since announced a ban on public gatherings of more than 20 people. Protests are banned in Saudi Arabia and the UAE, and troubled Bahrain has also announced a blanket ban on all protests this week, and Kuwait is traditionally more liberal. Yet this week, the Kuwaiti authorities arrested Mr Al Barrak for the crime of 'insulting' the ruler.

The government appears to be betting that enough Kuwaitis are fed up with the unstable parliament to accept these changes. They will be hoping they can count on the support of a good section of Kuwaiti urban liberals against an opposition coalition in which Islamist and tribal candidates feature heavily. For their part, the opposition see themselves as having a popular mandate: Mr Al Barrak, who is from a powerful tribe (the Al Mutairi), won more votes in 2012 than any other candidates has ever won in a Kuwaiti election. Neither is likely to back down any time soon.

Vying for Power

Both the government and the opposition seem to be testing the boundaries of what is acceptable, at a time when popular movements in some parts of the Arab region have successfully claimed a greater share of power, while in other countries, governments have increased their role.

Egypt has provided perhaps the most dramatic examples, with a series of unilateral 'constitutional declarations' by the army, arrogating itself more power, which were soon followed by a counter-move from the elected president taking these powers back. Such events are encouraging many in the region to re-imagine what is politically possible. Political players are no longer contesting their share of power within a fixed political system, but are experimenting with the possibility of re-making the rules of the game.

Read more:

Kuwait's Parliament: An Experiment in Semi-democracy
Briefing Paper
Jane Kinninmont, August 2012

Project on the Gulf >>