Political Prospects for Kuwait’s Next Election

On Sunday, the Constitutional Court ruled in favor of the Emir’s decree that reduced the number of votes for each citizen from four to one. However, it also dissolved the National Assembly elected in December 2010 on a technicality, and because it ruled that a decree that the Emir, Sheikh Sabah Al-Ahmad Al-Sabah, issued setting up a National Election Commission violated Kuwait’s constitution. New elections to replace the dissolved parliament must be held by August under Article 107 of Kuwait’s constitution.

Although it dissolved the loyalist-dominated parliament elected in December, the regime’s officials seemed mostly pleased with the ruling. General Mahmoud Al-Dousari, Interior Ministry Undersecretary for Major Security Affairs said that protests following the ruling would not be permitted, even in Erada Square where they had previously been allowed, claiming that the ruling of the court was final and Kuwait’s citizens accepted it. The Chairman of the National Electoral Committee itself was supportive of the ruling, despite the fact that the court eliminated his job, and he noted that a new decree would need to be issued regarding municipal elections that were to be held on July 6th. The Emir gave a speech in support of the ruling and urged citizens to accept it.

The opposition’s reaction was mostly negative, although the National Democratic Alliance, an alliance of liberal opposition groups announced it would take part in the elections that must be held by August. Other opposition groups reiterated their intention to boycott the upcoming elections if they are held under the one-vote decree. Twenty-four former MPs met at the office of former National Assembly Speaker Ahmed Al-Saadoun, at which they criticized the decision and announced they would boycott the upcoming elections. However, the regime may be calculating that turnout will rise among liberals who decide to participate as well as tribes which vote after boycotting the previous election. Recently the Emir has made attempts to reach out to Kuwait’s tribes, which were a major source of support for the opposition. Prior to the ruling the leader of the Awazem tribe (Kuwait’s largest) spoke against opposition demands and urged Kuwait’s citizens to attend a dinner in honor of the Emir.

The regime appears to be seeking a scenario in which increased tribal participation would boost turnout, and discredit opposition leaders who boycotted the elections. It could then continue with its strategy of targeting individual supporters of the opposition for prosecution (for example, jailing Twitter users accused of insulting the Emir). It may then in the future hope to placate (and to some degree co-opt) opposition leaders to further enhance its arguments for legitimacy.

The problem is that while in the short term such tactics may well be successful, they also risk eroding the regime’s legitimacy even further. Without this legitimacy, there is a major risk of having the already pervasive economic arrangement (in which oil revenues are used to provide benefits and subsidized state employment to citizens) become even more critical for the regime to sustain itself in power, and even more difficult to change even though in the long term it almost certainly has to.

Update 2: Kuwait’s Constitution: A Contested Anniversary

Update 2 (November 11th, 7:45pm): The turnout for protests in Kuwait was large, with at least 50,000 coming out to oppose the electoral law on the anniversary of the constitution, according to those who were there.

Perhaps in an attempt to distract from the protest held on the anniversary, the fireworks display organized by the government to celebrate the anniversary set a Guinness World Record for the largest fireworks display.

Update 1 (November 10th): The Emir gave a speech today in which he commemorated the constitution. He said that it was a “robust guarantee of the viability of the state and the vivacity of the society.” These words are just that – words – and they have little meaning coming from the Emir who provoked the current demonstrations by issuing a decree unilaterally changing the way that elections are held.

This Sunday, November 11th, 2012 is the fiftieth anniversary of Kuwait’s constitution, which was issued by a decree from then-Emir . The opposition is planning to hold a joint demonstration on the anniversary to protest the Emir’s decree changing the electoral law. By holding a demonstration on the anniversary of the constitution the opposition is making a bold statement that the anniversary should be an occasion to protest the government’s actions that threaten the relative freedom that exists in Kuwait now. As of yet, these rallies have not called for radial change or the overthrow of the regime, but as we have mentioned before, if the regime continues responding to peaceful rallies with stun grenades and tear gas it is questionable how long this will remain the case.

The government has also sought to invoke the constitution in defense of its actions, and prominent figures have issued statements praising the constitution even as the government takes steps to undermine its true meaning. The Emir, Sheikh Sabah Al-Ahmad Al-Jaber Al-Sabah said recently - at a meeting with the heads of the Army, police, and national guard – that “We are required today to choose between the state of law and constitution… or the path to chaos and undermining constitutional authority.” Yet what is undermining constitutional authority really? The people demanding real reform and democratization? Or a regime which is attempting to change the entire electoral process through a single decree by the Emir?

The National Assembly, (mind you, the same national assembly which was reconvened after the one elected in February was undemocratically dissolved) has for its part announced it plans to hold exhibits next week in commemoration of the fiftieth anniversary of the constitution. Other figures within the government have spoken up as well. In an article in Kuwait Times, Sheikh Sabah Jaber Al-Ali Al-Sabah, Director General of the Ports Authoritypraised the constitution, saying – even as the government has vowed to crack down on protests – that “Kuwaitis, since their early history, have been embracing consultation, democracy and popular participation as principle for life and joint action.” This statement is true – they have been embracing the constitution, democracy, and popular participation as principles for life and joint action. Indeed, it’s the government that’s been resisting these principles, both recently and indeed in the past.

The government’s willingness to undermine the constitution when it sees fit is not new, nor are the fundamentally undemocratic elements of the way Kuwait is goverened. In 1976 and 1986 the National Assembly was suspended, and the second time was restored after a determined pro-democracy movement and the experience of the Iraqi occupation, which unified the Kuwaiti people in resistance to the occupiers, and parliament was restored after the 1992 elections.

Interestingly, this isn’t even the first time that the government has tried to manipulate the electoral process by changing the way that elections are held. In 1980 the government did something similar to what the Emir’s decree did recently – it increased the number of districts from 10 to 50, with each district electing one member instead of five.

What is most remarkable and what deserves the greatest recognition on the anniversary on Sunday is the enduring democratic spirit of the Kuwaiti people. They have proven time and again their willingness to resist attempts by the government to limit their rights and manipulate the rules to its advantage. No doubt that spirit will be on display once again as the people come together this Sunday to demand reform and true democracy.

The Kuwaiti Government’s Hypocritical Foreign Policy

A look at the website of KUNA, the Kuwaiti state news agency, includes many articles about Kuwait’s support for human rights and international institutions – though given the recent actions of the government, this does not appear to extend to Kuwait itself. These articles are an example of the government appearing to support reform and democratization while stalling and attempting to clamp down on dissent in Kuwait.

The government of Kuwait has urged that Sri Lanka take additional steps to improve its human rights record. Human rights in Sri Lanka is indeed a serious issue, as the country has only recently emerged from a civil war and the current government has frequently faced criticism over its human rights record. Indeed, the candidate who President Rajapska defeated in 2010, Retired General Sareth Fonseka, was recently released from prison in July after being prosecuted following the election – allegedly for corruption. This is an important issue that should be addressed, but is supporting human rights in Sri Lanka while arresting members of the royal family who tweeted in favor of the opposition, and also arresting Musallam Al-Barrack for mildly criticizing the Emir, and going after Mohammad Abdul Qader al-Jasem for a blog post urging Saudi Arabia and the UAE to stay out of Kuwait’s affairs.

The Kuwaiti Ambassador to Bahrain met with the Deputy Prime Minister of Bahrain to discuss relations between the two countries – it is worth noting that both of them clamped down on dissent when faced with protests. Meanwhile, at the United Nations, Kuwait urged nations to strengthen support for UN peacekeeping efforts. Perhaps they view these peacekeeping operations as being in line with the involvement of Jordan in the crackdown on demonstrations. Kuwait also urged Japan to ratify the UN Convention on Handicapped Rights and to improve the treatment of the disabled within their society. There’s more – the Ministry of Information has announced it is participating in the Sharjah Book Fair, at an event where, according to Kuna, readers expressed interest in Kuwait’s political system.

What all this adds up to is a government that is focusing on improving its image elsewhere in the world while ignoring the situation at home. They are trying to improve their image (clumsily) while doing little to nothing in the way of real reform. This is why the opposition is set to boycott the December 1st elections, and why next Sunday we may see a rally the likes of which has not been seen in the history of modern Kuwait.