Kuwait’s upcoming elections bring hopes for a new beginning for the executive and legislative branches of government. But that depends on the elections' outcome and the relationship forged with new government leadership.
On November 16, Musallam Al-Barrak, Kuwait’s most prominent opposition figure, returned to the country after nearly four years in exile in Turkey, potentially ending one of Kuwait’s most intractable political crises since the Iraqi invasion in 1991. Barrak was one of more than a dozen activists and former members of parliament who returned to Kuwait after the emir granted a special amnesty to exiled opposition members convicted on various charges.
At the heart of the political crisis were harsh punishments imposed in 2017 against a group of activists and members of parliament who stormed the National Assembly in 2011. This came during the height of a protest movement against Nasser al-Mohammed al-Sabah, then the prime minister, in response to a corruption scandal involving him and several pro-government members of parliament and was also partly inspired by the regional Arab Spring uprisings. The rulings against those who stormed the Parliament were expected, so most of them left the country in a sort of self-imposed exile before they were handed prison terms. The opposition in the National Assembly has since worked to secure amnesty for these individuals, although in the end the amnesty resulted from a royal decree rather than a parliamentary vote.
This amnesty and the potential end of Kuwait’s longest political crisis may signal the beginning of a new era of cooperation between the executive (a term in Kuwait’s political lexicon taken to include the prime minister, Cabinet, and emir) and legislature in a country marked by perpetual political stasis. However, several factors will affect whether amnesty will pave the way for smoother relations: the fate of activists still jailed on political charges and of laws that the opposition views as repressive, requiring amendment or repeal; the disunity of an opposition that displays an endemic inability to coordinate; control over the legislative agenda; and unexpected external shocks that could disrupt cooperation efforts.
Is the Crisis Really Over?
The Kuwaiti media coverage of the return of Barrak and other exiles from Turkey implies that the political crisis is over. However there remain many unresolved issues. Former Member of Parliament Saleh al-Mulla stressed in a November 25 tweet that the crisis is far from over since activists remain imprisoned on political charges. Prominent opposition lawyer Mohammed al-Moqatei reiterated this point. There is even news now of amnesty being potentially on hold for the rest of the remaining activists in reaction to some overzealous comments by members of the hard-line opposition.
Moreover, this is hardly the only lingering issue for the opposition. The National Assembly elected in 2013, after a boycott by the opposition, passed numerous laws that imposed restrictions on civil liberties and harsh punitive measures for political offenses. Many of these laws were either amended or dropped, ironically through a political maneuver by the government (the prime minister and Cabinet). Yet a key amendment to Kuwait’s electoral law remains in force that prevents individuals who have been convicted of insulting the emir from running in future elections. This is an important issue for the opposition because it largely determines the political future of the pardoned former members of parliament. Disagreements over this issue could prove consequential for executive-legislative relations in Kuwait.
A Divided Opposition
While the parliamentary opposition blocs that form following National Assembly elections are referred to as a collective “opposition,” this doesn’t mean this grouping is a unified front. There are nuances that characterize these blocs, and they almost always either splinter into sub-blocs or fail to contain fiercely independent members of parliament whose actions often stray from the blocs’ main agendas. Such fissures help explain why the current opposition, although nearly a majority, acts like a minority bloc.
For example, the February 2012 National Assembly featured an opposition bloc, made up of about 35 members of parliament, that labeled itself the majority bloc. However, the bloc was ultimately unable to stop three of its members from acting independently and putting forth several interpellations without prior coordination. (Interpellations, or grillings of government ministers, are a key tool the opposition uses to try to shape government action.)
Even when the opposition ended a boycott of the National Assembly, which lasted for two elections (December 2012 and 2013), and made a strong showing in the 2016 elections, its performance in the National Assembly was marred by considerable discord and lack of coordination. For example, some members of the opposition put forth a general amnesty law, but they were not able to get a majority vote to get it passed or even convince many opposition members to vote for it.
The current National Assembly, elected in December 2020, is no more cohesive. There is officially an opposition bloc but members embody different approaches to some key issues. The bloc eventually split into several subgroups, each with a different agenda and approach toward the government.
These disagreements have become sharper and more pronounced since the amnesty deal was announced October 19. A group of hard-line members of parliament have accused Obaid al-Wasmi, an opposition Member of Parliament who was reputed to have been the moving force behind the amnesty deal, of making excessive compromises with the executive without coordinating with the rest of the opposition. These political divisions extend to the exiled group that was in Turkey, specifically between Barrak, a populist and founding member of the now defunct Popular Action bloc, and former independent Salafi Member of Parliament Faisal al-Muslim. Both have made attempts to unite the opposition. Barrak explicitly asked the opposition to seek unity during this critical time, and he said the opposition members of parliament would meet soon. He even personally greeted Muslim, the presumed leader of the hard-line opposition. Yet many comments and tweets made by the hard-line opposition as well as a fiery speech by Muslim upon his return to Kuwait indicate that this part of the opposition has no interest in compromising with the executive, making opposition unity illusive.
These disagreements could mean that a small splinter group might pursue obstructionist policies, thus increasing tensions with the executive. These disagreements could also directly affect the ability of the opposition to impose its own agenda in the National Assembly. This would especially be the case if the opposition cannot control the National Assembly’s key committees.
The Battle for the Legislative Agenda
The opposition’s ability to control the legislative agenda, and effectively legislate, hinges on the control of key legislative committees, coordination, the government’s goodwill and ability to control pro-government members of parliament, and external shocks. These factors could lead to renewed executive-legislative deadlock or inspire another round of battles over the rules of the game.
Setting aside subdivisions within the opposition, the National Assembly is now generally split between an opposition bloc of 31 members of parliament and 17 pro-government members of parliament. Of the National Assembly’s 17 permanent committees, 13 are controlled either fully or through a simple majority by members of the opposition (the group of 31), while the rest are controlled by the group of 17. However, the committees vary by importance and weight, and the key committees are either controlled by the group of 17 or are still highly contested.
While one of the most important committees in the National Assembly, the Legislative Affairs committee, is chaired by opposition Member of Parliament Obaid al-Wasmi, the opposition does not hold a majority in this committee. Mohanad al-Sayir, a member of the opposition, withdrew from the committee citing frustrations over a lack of coordination. Further, Wasmi is currently abroad for medical reasons, and, in his absence, the committee will be headed by the vice-chair, Hisham al-Saleh, an uncompromising pro-government member of parliament. The Priorities committee is similarly contested, and the Financial and Economic Affairs committee is firmly controlled by the group of 17.
However, control of the committees alone will not determine how successful the National Assembly will be in legislating. Coordination among the opposition will be critical. The signs so far point to a deeply divided opposition from the outset. One of the main divisions is with a group of nine members of parliament who have been critical since the beginning of Wasmi’s moves to work with the executive. And some opposition members, particularly Sayir, who openly supported Wasmi’s dialogue initiative, appear to be breaking away from him over the contest for control over the Legislative Affairs committee. Moreover, some members of the group of nine are seemingly set on another round of obstructionism, though they will likely not garner support from the majority of opposition members this time around.e opposition’s past record in 2016 provides a clear example of how legislation can stall over differences between opposition members even in the context of a Legislative Affairs committee controlled by the opposition both by sheer numbers and chairmanship.
There is of course the possibility that the moderate wing of the opposition will be able to coordinate with the government and the speaker of the National Assembly to pass parts of its agenda. That, however, largely depends on the government’s goodwill and ability to control members of parliament close to it from blocking or distorting proposed laws, much like they did with amnesty proposals during the 2016 National Assembly.
Kuwait’s National Assembly will face considerable obstacles as it endeavors to legislate. The emir’s move to grant amnesty to members of the opposition is a start on the path to improve executive-legislative relations and end political gridlock, but a return to Kuwait’s typical political stasis is always a looming possibility.
is an assistant professor of political science. His research specializes in Kuwait’s National Assembly, the Saudi Shura Council, and Gulf Arab affairs.
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