Kuwait plans to hold parliamentary elections on September 29. This comes after a heated political atmosphere for over a year characterized by the conflictual relationship between the executive and legislative branches of government. This political standoff was resolved only after Crown Prince Meshal al-Ahmed al-Jaber al-Sabah gave a speech on behalf of Emir Nawaf al-Ahmed al-Sabah on June 22 dissolving the Parliament and clearing the way for new leadership in the Cabinet under the son of the emir, Ahmed Nawaf al-Ahmed al-Sabah.
These elections are characterized by a new optimism, with hopes for a new beginning from both branches of government. But that depends on the elections’ outcome and the relationship forged with new government leadership.
A Prelude to an Opening
The previous Parliament in Kuwait was paralyzed by conflict, with divisions between those who were allies of the former prime minister, Sabah al-Khalid al-Sabah, and the former speaker, Marzouq al-Ghanem, and those who opposed them and demanded their removal from their posts. This reached a climax when Sabah al-Khalid was questioned by three legislators in March, garnering more than 20 members supportive of a vote of no confidence against him. Faced with this inevitability, on April 5, he resigned, and on May 10, his resignation was accepted. However, the emir did not appoint a replacement for over a month, leaving the National Assembly effectively suspended, unable to function without a government.
To break this stalemate, on June 14 more than 10 legislators began a sit-in inside the Parliament. The sit-in won the support of more politicians, political groups, and civil society institutions and gained grassroot momentum as supportive events were organized for those holed up inside the National Assembly. After a little more than a week, the crown prince delivered his speech on behalf of the emir, conceding to the protesters’ demands to dissolve the Parliament and call for new elections.
A New Government Leadership
Both the speech and the decree were seen as a victory for the opposition.
On July 24, Ahmed Nawaf was appointed to replace the prime minister. He immediately took actions that garnered political and popular support. Under his leadership, the executive branch issued a decree to register voters in their electoral districts based on the residential addresses that appear on their civil IDs. In the past, some politicians had been accused of transferring voters to their own districts to boost their chances of being elected. With the decree, the number of constituents changed in all five of Kuwait’s electoral districts, and it has been seen as an important step in combating corruption in elections.
The newly appointed prime minister also took steps to improve good governance. He conducted surprise visits to government facilities to monitor the provision of services. And, in another move toward fighting corruption in the bureaucracy and improving performance, Ahmed Nawaf replaced the heads of some governmental institutions.
Another opposition demand was achieved when the long-time speaker of the National Assembly, Marzouq Al-Ghanem, announced that he would not run in the elections. The reasons behind his decision are not clear, but he asserted – somewhat cryptically – in a statement that he would not quit politics and that his decision was temporary.
And a New Election Dynamic
These developments have influenced the discourse in the election campaigns. Members of the opposition have expressed satisfaction with Ahmed Nawaf’s actions, blunting the criticism of executive power that has been a cornerstone of previous elections. Having decided not to participate, Ghanem rarely figures as a flashpoint in the candidates’ campaigns, save some former members of parliament gloating that his decision not to run was a result of their actions in the National Assembly.
At times then, the opposition, or “reformists,” as they are described by some, have appeared at a loss over how to campaign. The expectation was that the opposition candidates would have a clear agenda on how to solve Kuwait’s many problems. However, creating a unified front with a unified agenda in these elections has thus far proved difficult given the nature of the electoral and political systems in the country.
Some attempts at opposition unity have been made. For example, in an effort to increase their chances to become the majority in Parliament, Faisal al-Muslim al-Otaibi, a former member of parliament, proposed the creation of lists for the reformists in each district. However, the current one-vote electoral system does not facilitate the formation of electoral coalitions like the previous multivote system did. Moreover, ideological divisions within the opposition traditionally hinder cooperation.
For these reasons, individually crafted agendas are common in elections in Kuwait, with independent candidates, in general, designing their campaigns based on the demands of their constituents and the problems that their electoral districts face. These electoral programs may overlap, but the reformists rarely coordinate with each other during their campaigns. One exception, in these elections, is the Bloc of Five, led by Hassan Johar. The bloc appeared in the previous Parliament and played an important role within the opposition. Another exception is the Islamic Constitutional Movement, which represents the Muslim Brotherhood in the country; it has several candidates in these elections running in different districts.
Most important, these electoral programs can be a source of division among the reformists’ camp. One program is the “wathiqat al-qiyam,” or doctrine of values, initiated by Islamist constituents to urge candidates to pledge that they will support conservative demands, such as fighting “immoral” behavior within society and advancing Islamic laws. The doctrine has created a debate within the country between those who believe that it is an important step to protect society and those who see it as an attempt to impose certain values. Its opponents launched the hashtag #وثيقة قندهار, or Kandahar Doctrine, to try to discredit the program.
Launching the doctrine of values program was a peaceful way to express a set of demands and act as a group to exert pressure during the election season without resorting to violence. Such actions, regardless of the substantive content of this doctrine, are common in other democratic and semi-democratic countries.
The Islamists’ doctrine has also sparked divisions. Some opposition politicians from previous Parliaments signed on the platform, endorsing the doctrine, leading many to question whether independent “reformist” candidates would remain committed to protecting individual freedoms in the country. This could negatively affect electoral support for these self-proclaimed independents, diminishing the camp of political reformists in the next Parliament. Moreover, signing the doctrine might help some nonreformist opposition candidates gain support among conservative and religious voters, which can ultimately lead them to win in the elections despite not supporting government reform.
According to Srat, a news outlet on Twitter, only 48 out of more than 370 candidates signed the doctrine. Notably, no women candidates were among them. Support for the conservative social values doctrine was noticeably stronger in the tribal outer districts. While the doctrine and the pledge by some candidates do not have a constitutional basis, discussing the doctrine’s content in the next Parliament might be a source of intense debate and division in the National Assembly and may distract the legislators from other priorities.
Other important issues have also been raised in campaigns, such as fighting corruption, supporting the private sector, improving public services, issuing an amnesty law, for those, inside or outside Kuwait, who have been convicted because of their political activities or their opinions in the past decade, and reforming governance within the National Assembly. However, even if candidates can agree that these are critical issues, they often disagree on how they want the government and the National Assembly to handle them. This is likely to similarly be the case once blocs are formed in the National Assembly after the elections.
The Collective Way Ahead
The sit-in was a good model of a collective action. However, it was successful because it had one aim. When it comes to governing programs, members of parliament disagree on more than they agree. The individualism and political independents that have dominated the political scene in Kuwait since 1962, when the constitution was written, seem destined to continue in these elections. Unless a dramatic change takes place, a government with a reformist agenda formed and supported by a majority in the National Assembly is unlikely.