Kuwait After December 1st: A Divided Political Sphere

Protests in Kuwait have been held every day since the election on December 1st, and show no sign of abating, although at present their size is limited and the regime retains a degree of support. Today, a protest was held in Kuwait City that attracted tens of thousands of demonstrators who chanted slogans against the Emir’s decree, demonstrating that even as the regime has moved to dominate the formal political arena the opposition has the clout to demand that its voice be heard.

It seems from the results of the election that the opposition’s decision to boycott the polls means that there are two separate (but related) political processes occurring in Kuwait at the same time. There is the regular political process – now dominated by forces allied with the government – who are by no means homogenous (as will be outlined below in greater detail) consisting of the royal family and the executive branch, the National Assembly (now dominated by government allies) and the judicial system.

Then there is the opposition, which by boycotting the election removed itself from much of the formal political system. The political sphere of the opposition consists of protests, both authorized like the massive December 1st protest on the eve of the election, which was supported by @KarametWatan, the anonymous organizers of several previous protests. The rally was attended by numerous opposition figures, including Ahmed Al-Saadoun, former Speaker of the National Assembly who most recently held that position in the Assembly elected in February 2012, which was dissolved by the constitutional court. Also speaking at the rally was former Islamist MP Jamaan Al-Herbesh. Musallam Al-Barrak, a former MP who was arrested and later released on bail in October after urging the Emir not to rule in an autocratic manner, attended the rally and chanted slogans against the regime.

The government on Tuesday pledged to take a hard line against opposition protests. The Interior Ministry vowed to not allow “any unauthorized gatherings whatever their aims and needs are,” and said that police officers had been injured in clashes on Monday by protesters who were throwing stones and had attempted to run over police officers. The government’s hard line led them to arrest eight teenagers between 15 and 17 years old without charges before a protest on Thursday, according to Naser AlAbduljalil (@NforNaser).

At the same time that protests are continuing, the government has moved forward with the formal political process without opposition participation. Despite recent events, an analysis of the turnout reveals that the regime still has a large degree of public support, or at least acquiescence. If the opposition’s calculation of 28 percent turnout is accurate (down from approximately 60 percent in previous elections) then theoretically about 53.3 percent of the electorate participate in the boycott. The official statistics indicate that approximately 40 percent of the electorate voted, which would mean approximately 33 percent of the population participated in the boycott.

The regime is thus moving forward with the belief that it has the support (or at least acquiescence) of between 46 and 67 percent of the electorate following the recent election, and it is to this political process that I now turn.

Official Political Process (Government allies)

The government is moving foward as though the election was a referendum in which it prevailed. The Emir reappointed the incumbent Prime Minister, Sheikh Jaber Al-Mubarak Al-Sabah who has served since late 2011 when a corruption scandal led to the resignation of his predecessor. He has until December 16th to select a new cabinet, as that is when the new National Assembly will convene.

The National Assembly that convenes on the 16th will be substantially different than the previous one, as Shia candidates won an unprecedented number of seats, while tribal figures and Sunni Islamists chose to boycott. MPs are already competing for position in the next parliament. Ali Al-Omair thought to be one of the frontrunners for the Speakership, and Essam Al-Dabous has also announced he intends to stand. MP Askar Al-Enezi has announced his run for the Deputy speakership. Al-Enezi was the top vote-getter in the 4th constituency despite being initially barred from running due to his alleged involvement in a corruption scandal. (As a matter of fact candidates initially barred from standing did quite well, 9 of them were elected.) Both of these MPs – despite being government loyalists, have shown at least some degree of independence, as Al-Omair participated or supported two ministerial grillings in 2007 (including one member of the royal family), and Al-Enezi urged the government to apologize when the head of the Enezi tribe was arrested at the airport following pro-Bedoon protest tweets prior to a flight.

What these examples show is that the loyalists, just like the coalition opposing the government, cannot be considered a completely homogenous group. Some members of the new parliament have discussed making further changes to the electoral law, such as having 10 constituencies with 5 MPs and two votes per voter, which would be the same votes to seats ratio (40 percent) as under the 2006 electoral law, in the hopes of averting another boycott. However given the government’s decision to press forward in spite of the boycott the opposition is unlikely to take this as a suitable concession, and will likely continue to engage in protests and legal challenges, to which I now turn.

Opposition’s Political Process

The opposition decided to boycott the election following the Emir’s decree reducing the number of votes each voter is allowed to cast from four to one. The protests have continued following the election.

Today, tens of thousands of Kuwaitis protested near Kuwait towers and chanted “the people want the fall of the decree.” On Wednesday, protesters gathered at a roundabout outside Kuwait City and were followed by cars honking their horns in support as they chanted against the Emir’s electoral decree. The previous day police had fired tear gas at demonstrators protesting against the results of the election.

The opposition has refused to accept the legitimacy of the new parliament and is calling for the revocation of the one-vote decree. Their protests have been met by the regime with tear gas and batons as well as arbitrary arrests.

They have also vowed to challenge the electoral decrees through the courts. A few days ago several leading figures from the liberal National Bloc filed a petition, saying that they would respect the court’s verdict. The Emir had previously said the same thing. If the court rules against the decree it would result in the 2009 National assembly being recalled – yet again – and another election – yet again.

What does this mean?

The Emir’s decree was seen by the opposition as crossing a line, as they decided the regime wanted to increase its power at their expense. Meanwhile, following the election the regime feels confident that it can endure the protests. Maybe they are right, at least in the short term. However, over the long term if (even according to the regime’s own figures) one-third of the population rejects participation in the political process it does not bode well for Kuwait long-term. The regime may yet pull through this crisis without making any real concessions, but the people – as they have in the past – have been steadfast in demanding their rights. It is unclear whether any outcome can resolve the long-term political crisis, so the upheaval that has lasted for the past six years continues, and has entered a new phase with this most recent election.

Could Kuwait’s Courts Overrule the Election Decree?

On Monday, November 26th, Kuwait’s Administrative Court is expected to issue a ruling on a legal challenge to the decree by the Emir which reduced the number of votes that each citizen is allowed to cast from four to one. Riyadh Al-Sane, a Kuwaiti lawyer challenged the constitutionality of the decree and is also arguing that the election scheduled for December 1st (next Saturday) should be postponed until that challenge is ruled upon. The court has announced that it will issue its ruling on Monday.

According to an article from Al-Hayat that was republished and Translated by Al-Monitor, the court will be deciding whether or not the election should be postponed until the Constitutional Court can review the decree by the Emir. The Emir, it should be noted, has said that he would accept any ruling by the constitutional court on the issue.

In the event that the issue came before the constitutional court, it is not entirely certain how the court would react to it. Two recent rulings – one of them favorable to the government, the other unfavorable – illustrate that the court has acted contrary to the wishes of the executive branch before, making this another wildcard in Kuwait’s political crisis. In June, the Court dissolved the previous parliament (which was elected in February of this year) because it said that the Emir’s decree calling for the elections in February was not issued correctly.

However, in September they rejected the government’s appeal against the electoral law passed in 2006 which reduced the number of constituencies to five, with ten members elected from each one. On October 19th, the Emir, Sheikh Sabah Al-Ahmad Al-Sabah issued a decree which kept the number of constituencies the same but reduced the number of votes that each citizen has from four to one, meaning that the election according to the opposition, is more susceptible to government manipulation. The protests (and the accompanying election boycott) which have erupted recently cite as a major demand the revocation of the Emir’s decree.

As the situation stands now the election – with virtually all opposition groups boycotting – is more of a referendum on the current political system than an election, as regardless of turnout it is guaranteed that the candidates elected will be favorable to the government. The government has launched a media campaign urging citizens to vote because it wants a higher turnout that would signify support for the current system. If the election goes forward as it is, it would mark a new phase in Kuwait’s current political crisis.

A ruling against the decree could – potentially – take the situation in a different direction. It would give a boost to demonstrations, and would likely set the stage for yet another election campaign with the central issues of the way Kuwait is governed still unresolved.