Kuwait Votes in 5th Election in 6 Years

Kuwaitis voted on Saturday for the fifth time in six years, in a vote boycotted by the opposition, which held a rally on Friday attended by factions from across the political spectrum, including youth movements, Islamists, and liberals. The opposition boycotted the election due to the Emir’s decree reducing the number of votes that each voter can cast from four to one, so the election was as much a referendum on the regime as an election campaign, because by participating, voters, and the candidates they supported were acquiescing (at least tacitly) in the Emir’s decree.

The results of this election should thus be taken with the understanding that they contests between regime supporters. However, it is important to analyze them to determine what they mean for the future of Kuwaiti politics, what it means for the nature of the regime’s backers, and what it reveals about the opposition. In particular with regards to the areas where the boycott was most widespread.

Electoral Laws and Procedure

Kuwait has approximately 1.2 million citizens, but only 422,000 are eligible to vote. The minimum age to vote is 21. Naturalized citizens must wait 20 years before being able to vote. Members of the armed forces are not permitted to vote. In this election, women were projected to make up around 54 percent of the overall electorate.

The National Assembly has a total of 50 members. The country is divided into five constituencies, with each constituency electing ten members to the National Assembly. In 2006, a new electoral law was passed that changed the format of Kuwait’s constituencies and voting rules. This law reduced the number of constituencies from 25 (2 members each) to 5 (10 members each) and increased the number of votes that each citizen could cast from one to four.

The government attempted to challenge the legitimacy of this electoral law this year, but the constitutional court rejected the challenge, despite previously dissolving the National Assembly elected in February 2012 on a technicality and reinstating the previous one. Subsequently, the Emir, Sheikh Sabah Al-Ahmad Al-Sabah triggered the current political crisis by issuing a decree reducing the number of votes that each citizen was allowed to cast from four to one, and the opposition boycotted the election in protest.


There were a total of 308 candidates in five constituencies, competing for a total of 50 seats. The opposition claims that the election had a turnout of 26.7 percent, which would make it the lowest turnout election of any ever held in Kuwait. Official figures from the Ministry of Information give the turnout as 162,601 out of approximately 422,000 eligible voters, which would make the turnout about 38.5 percent.

According to Kuwait Times, the boycott was most effective in the Fourth and Fifth constituencies which have large tribal populations, and least effective in the First constituency, which has a significant Shi’ite population. The number of Shi’ite MPs increased to 15, from 7 in the February 2012 elections and 9 in the 2009 elections. Prominent Shi’ite MPs include Adnan Abdulsamad, Faisal Al-Duwaisan, Saleh Ashour, Hussein Al-Qallaf and Abdulhameed Dashti. Other successful candidates included Ali Al-Rashed, Ali Al-Omair, Ahmad Al-Mulaifi, and Askar Al-Enezi.

Sunni Islamists won 4 seats (down from 23), while tribal candidates won 19 seats, down from 25. It is important to note that three major tribes – the Awazem, Mutair, and Ajman, which altogether have approximately 400,000 members boycotted the election and did not elect a single MP. Four women were elected, as compared to zero in the election in February 2012.

Of the 24 candidates who were initially barred from running in the elections by the Interior Ministry and then subsequently reinstated by the courts, 9 were elected to the new parliament: Saleh Ashour (1st constituency), Yousef Al-Zalzaleh (1st), Saadoun Hamad Al-Otiabi (5th), Askar Al-Enezi (4th), Mubarak Al-Khurainej (4th), Khaled Adwa Al-Ajmi (5th), Nabil Al-Fadhel (3rd), Khaled Al-Shulaimi (4th), and Abdulhameed Dashti (1st).

In an election boycotted by the opposition, the government knew that it would have a new parliament dominated by supporters, but Kuwait’s political crisis is far from over, and new developments could lead to yet another election being called in the not-too-distant future, particularly a ruling by the Constitutional Court against the Emir’s decree, which would dissolve the newly-elected assembly and recall the 2009 National Assembly yet again.

Two Court Rulings in Kuwait

The Administrative Court ruled on Monday that the Emir’s decree reducing the number of votes from four to one is a “sovereign act” and is thus not subject to review by the Administrative Court. The Constitutional Court, which has the authority to rule on such issues is expected to hear an appeal from the opposition after the election.

Another Administrative Court bench ruled that many of the disqualified candidates could participate in the elections, but this is not the blessing for democracy that it seems. Many of these candidates are reported to have accepted bribes from the regime. The former MPs who are allowed to run include Saleh Ashour, Youssef Al-Zalzalah, Khalaf Dumaitheer, Saadoun Hammad, Askar Al-Enezi and Khaled Al-Adwah. They had previously been disqualified on the grounds that they did not enjoy a “good reputation.”

It is interesting that they were excluded on these grounds. The most significant allegation against many of them was that they accepted bribes from the regime (which was the cause of the scandal which led to the storming of parliament and the resignation of then-PM Nasser Al-Mohammed Al-Ahmed Al-Sabah.

This court ruling was perhaps the last opportunity to avert an escalation of Kuwait’s political crisis. The Constitutional Court will likely review the decision after the election, but even if they rule in favor of the opposition is would extend the crisis into new territory. If they annul the decree they would likely annul the election also, meaning that Kuwaiti citizens would be going to vote yet again.

Former MP Ali Al-Omair says courts may delay election

Former MP Ali Al-Omair, who is running for the National Assembly in the Third Constituency, said that it is possible that the court might delay the elections in its ruling tomorrow, according to Kuwait Times. If the court does delay the election then it would mean that the parliament elected in 2009 would be reinstated for a second time, after being reinstated in July by the Constitutional Court. The same court would then rule on whether or not the Emir’s decree is constitutional.

Although he is not boycotting the election, Al-Omair has caused problems for the government in the past. In February 2007 he supported a motion to question then-Health Minister Shaikh Ahmad Al-Abdullah Al-Sabah over problems with the health care system, including corruption, discrimination, and a decline in the quality of services. After the questioning the minister was facing a no-confidence vote after 10 members signed a motion which would have meant that a member of the Al-Sabah family was facing a no-confidence motion – despite no Minister ever having been removed by one before. To avoid the vote, the government resigned, and the new government appointed by the Emir did not include the former Health Minister in the new cabinet. Later that year, in October 2007, Al-Omair supported questioning the Minister of Islamic and Awqaf Affairs.

Al-Omair’s comments about the potential postponement of the election outline what would happen in the event that the courts intervene. The new parliament could also review the Emir’s decree if the court does not overturn it – unlikely since it will consist primarily of government supporters, but public pressure can cause people to change their opinions. Either way, Kuwait’s political crisis shows no sign of letting up.

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.

Is Kuwait Headed for Yet Another Election? (After this one)

The Emir of Kuwait, Sheikh Sabah Al-Ahmad Al-Sabah has said that he will accept any decision by the constitutional court regarding his decree reducing the number of votes citizens are allowed to cast from four to one. He said this in a speech during which he urged citizens to vote, and the government has also launched ads urging citizens to cast their ballots. The opposition is planning a rally organized by @KarametWatan for November 30th, the eve of the election that will be called “Dignity of the Nation 3.”

The opposition’s boycott is largely due to the decree issued by the Emir in which he reduced the number of votes that citizens are allowed to cast from four to one. With the Naitonal Assembly consisting of 50 members, with ten each elected from five districts. With the one-vote system, this means that it will be easier for the government to manipulate the electoral process to ensure success by pro-government candidates. Even with the opposition boycotting there are still 389 candidates running for 50 seats, meaning that those elected would likely need less than 10 percent of the vote to win – which is why the opposition views it as favorable to government allies and why they refuse to participate.

Legal challenges may be filed against the Emir’s decree – and this is where it gets interesting. A challenge to the electoral law may be referred to the Constitutional Court by ordinary trial courts, at which point the Constitutional Court can consider making a ruling on the constitutionality of the decree. If the court does decide to overturn the decree – and that’s a big if – then its interesting to see what would happen.

I foresee one of two things – the court itself ordering the dissolution of the national assembly because it was elected improperly (or it being dissolved) or an attempt by the government to resist holding new elections, which would escalate the country’s political crisis further. My guess is that they take the first route, which could lead to yet another general election for Kuwait, which would be the sixth since the current Emir assumed the throne in 2006. If the court decides to maintain the decree then the opposition boycott will continue.

Either way the political crisis is likely to escalate over the coming months, with no clear resolution in sight.

Coordinating Against Democracy

The interior minister of Kuwait, Sheikh Ahmad Al-Humoud Al-Jaber Al-Sabah attended a GCC security meeting in Riyadh, shortly before returning to Kuwait from Saudi Arabia he announced, through the state news agency KUNA, that there was “a high-level security coordination among the GCC countries to facing future challenges.” According to KUNA, “The final statement of the one-day meeting included resolutions and recommendations that would activate common security challenges and plans.”

The article goes on to say that “very important” decisions were made at the meeting that were “aimed at addressing present, urgent, and future security challenges.” It also said that the Sheikh Ahmad sent a cable to Prince Mohammad bin Nayef, the interior minister of Saudi Arabia thanking him for organizing the meeting. This article is very bland, if not cryptic. It provides absolutely no details at all about what was discussed at the meeting, or its purpose. What are the “present, urgent and future security challenges” that are being addressed? But there is more.

There’s more however, as another article about the same meeting, also on KUNA, describes more about what was discussed. The Saudi Interior Minister said that he hoped for increased security cooperation among the GCC states. Meanwhile, the Interior minister of the UAE, (who is also Deputy Prime Minister) Sheikh Saif bin Zayed al-Nahyan urged the GCC states to develop “unified security policies” that would contribute to “cementing security, stability, and sustainable development.”  A third article also mentions that the six states signed a security agreement. The article also mentions that the Interior Minister of Bahrain thanked the other GCC countries for “standing by Bahrain in the face of terrorism and violence,” and that the Secretary General of the GCC gave condolence to Bahrain for members of the security forces who were killed in “terrorist acts” that were committed by “terrorist gangs.”

It is clear then, that this meeting was held to arrange ways to further clamp down on dissent among the GCC states. When Mohamed Abdul Qader al-Jasem wrote an article urging Saudi Arabia and the UAE to stay out of Kuwaiti affairs, this is what he was warning about. The “very important” decisions that were made almost certainly involved the “challenge” of preventing the people from attaining their rights. “Unified security policies” is, therefore, a codeword for more interventions of the type that happened when Saudi Arabia and the UAE moved to protect an authoritarian regime in Bahrain from the demands of the people.

By the way, it seems as though the Arabic version of the article and put it through Google Translate. What does it say about the government if they can’t even find someone to translate their articles properly.

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.

Protests in Kuwait Come Closer to Boiling Point

More protests are scheduled in Kuwait for this Sunday, November 11th, following protests last Sunday that were repressed by security forces with stun grenades and tear gas. The choice of November 11th is pointed – it is the anniversary of Kuwait’s constitution, which has recently been threatened by the actions of the Emir and his government. This Sunday’s protest is a joint rally that will take place at Erada Square, which is opposite parliament, and is a designated area for protests. Recently many protests have spread beyond Erada Square, giving the authorities a pretext to crack down on them.

These protests come as the Emir, Sheikh Sabah Al-Ahmad Al-Sabah, seems to still be out of touch with the demands of the people. He said that the constitutional court might be called upon to decide the fate of his recent decree that reduced the number of votes that Kuwaiti citizens have from four to one for the elections that are scheduled to be held on December 1st.

The opposition’s movement to boycott these elections has been gaining momentum recently, as evidenced by the fact that an account created by Mohammad Qasem, founder of the Public Committee for the Election Boycott gained 20,000 Twitter followers within 24 hours of its creation.

The Emir claimed that he keeps an equal distance between supporters and opponents, and would abide by any decision by the constitutional court regarding his decree on the electoral process. However, this sidesteps a very important issue – why is it that that Emir, simply by issuing a decree, was able to rearrange the entire process of selecting members of the National Assembly in a way that might more probably be favorable to his supporters? Also, how can he keep his distance from both sides at a time when he has vowed to crack down on demonstrations which he referred to as “chaotic rallies.”

There have been more ominous developments in Kuwait recently, a country which for a long time was considered more open than its neighbors in the Gulf. The Interior Ministry stated that it would seek to crack down on social media to “safeguard the cohesiveness of the population and society.” Also, recently-freed former MP Musallam al-Barrack confirmed Jordanian involvement in the crackdown against pro-democracy demonstrators.

As of now the protests have remained moderate and few have called for the fall of the regime. However, if the government continues its repression and ignores the demands of the people it is questionable how long this will remain the case. It seems that the Kuwaiti government is, much like the Jordanian government, making pledges of reform while continuing with more of the same unaccountable government and manipulated elections for legislative bodies that remain relatively powerless.

Hasn’t Kuwait Learned Anything From the Arab Spring?

The actions by the Emir of Kuwait, Sheikh Sabah Al-Ahmad Al-Sabah, Kuwait’s actions by the Emir, have shown that the country’s government is not going to give into the demands of its people. The Associated Press reports that Kuwait will “take all possible measures to quell growing opposition protests.” Is this the right decision? Absolutely not.

We’re living in a time where people have certain inherent rights. One being the right to protest peacefully against an oppressive regime. Sheik Sabah Al-Ahmad Al-Sabah is not only oppressing his people by threatening to take tougher measures but is also demeaning his people by calling their protests “chaotic rallies.”

This will hurt Kuwait in the long term. The people of Kuwait are not going to stand for such measures and opposition against the monarchy will only grow. Authorities are taking such harsh measures in an attempt to oppress the protesters and instill fear in the citizens. But as seen in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya and elsewhere this doesn’t necessarily work, and is in fact counterproductive. These measures to oppress people have proven to be the true catalysts for change as it pushes the political situation further towards the brink.

Ironically, Jordan has rushed to Kuwait’s side, for $6 billion. According to reports, in October an agreement was reached during a visit by former Jordanian intelligence chief Samih Battikhi under which Jordan would dispatch 16,000 soldiers to Kuwait to assist in a crackdown on demonstrations there, in return for funds to help address Jordan’s budget shortfalls. This arrangement is yet another example of collaboration between authoritarian elites in the region desperate to stay in power.

This is yet another example of regimes underestimating the power of the people. These regimes continue to assume that if they crack down hard enough, people will stop protesting and the situation will go back to the way it was in 2010 before the term Arab Awakening was ever in anyone’s vocabulary. What happens if the protests continue? Will Kuwait implement true reform or will it be like Jordan, with repeated promises of change while the government delivers simply more of the same?