If held as scheduled in June 2017, Kuwait’s legislative elections would mark the end of the first Kuwaiti Parliament to serve its full four-year term since 2003. The present Parliament, elected amid a wide-ranging opposition boycott, is unsurprisingly loyalist and thus has not challenged the government to advance a political reform agenda.
Nonetheless, many Kuwaitis seem to think that an early dissolution of Parliament is imminent, with elections rumored to take place as early as December, citing issues ranging from low turnout in summer polls to a Parliament increasingly stymied over matters related to subsidy reform. Even if early elections are held, however, it is unclear how significant they would be in terms of effecting policy change or altering positions of an increasingly intransigent opposition.
Opposition Faces New Legal Hurdles
Members of a broad-based, yet loosely organized, opposition movement continue to lament the existence of a voting law, imposed by the emir, Sheikh Sabah al-Ahmed al-Sabah, in 2012, that grants each citizen only one vote in each district; previously, each citizen was granted four votes. This change is thought to favor independents ahead of the organized political blocs and tribal groupings that dominate a largely Islamist, left-leaning nationalist and tribal opposition. However, since the only Parliaments elected under the new law have been voted in under conditions of opposition boycott, the true effects of this law on opposition activity, and the degree of influence it comes to hold inside the legislature, are not yet apparent.
While most members of the opposition have stood by their decision to boycott previous elections held under the 2012 electoral law, the powerful Muslim Brotherhood bloc, the Islamic Constitutional Movement (ICM), has decided to contest upcoming elections. Senior members of the movement opine that it is their responsibility to participate in the polls, since the present Parliament has failed to tackle issues of political reform important to the ICM and other opposition members, namely the implementation of a political parties law and the empowerment of Parliament over the emir’s executive power. In fact, the Parliament has instead passed legislation detrimental to such blocs. In January, by an overwhelming majority (37 of 50 members of parliament in favor and only four opposed) the Parliament passed a restrictive media law requiring all “professional” outlets to obtain a government license to operate and assigning jail terms for a variety of violations to this law. This bill followed the passage, in June 2015, of a similarly restrictive cybercrimes law. Most directly affecting the opposition was the June 2016 passage of a law, with 40 members of parliament supporting the measure, barring Kuwaitis who have insulted the ruler, God, and the prophets from running in elections. This will affect dozens of members of the opposition and thus weaken their position in the upcoming polls, if they decide to run.
Though ICM leadership insists that its members still meet with others in the opposition, major members of the opposition have not followed suit in ending the boycott, aside from Salafi group Thawabat al-Ummah. Caught between principle and pragmatism, secular, left-leaning members of the opposition debate the decision to boycott yet seem likely to do so. Members of the organized youth opposition seem to insist on the need for a boycott, with one youth leader openly denouncing the ICM’s decision to participate in upcoming polls, since the government has failed to address opposition concerns that led to the first boycott and has in fact stepped up its crackdown.
Outside of the Parliament, the opposition coalition has had some success increasing public awareness about the need for constitutional reforms to further empower the Parliament. However it is not clear whether an opposition coalition could remain united within the Parliament, even if an agreement can be reached to contest elections. ICM members insist that the election of a broad-based unified opposition coalition will be impossible under current electoral rules. In the 2012 Parliament, the last legislature elected under the former law, the opposition managed to control 34 of 50 seats largely through cooperation with other opposition forces. The Constitutional Court voided these election results four months later since they had not been held under the new electoral law, only to replace the body with the legislature elected in 2009 until new polls could be held later in the year.
The government clearly hopes to avoid a unified opposition electoral coalition. Yet at a time when opposition unity around an agenda of constitutional reforms appears to be at a level not seen since 2006, the tactics that members of this coalition employ to reach their aims are increasingly diverging. While all members of the opposition lament the existing electoral law and recognize the impediments that it places on the opposition, not all members see a boycott as a helpful means of pressuring the government. As a result, what could, in theory, be a united opposition, is, in fact, crumbling in the face of government tactics.
Tribes Find an Independent Voice
One dynamic unique to this post-Arab Spring opposition coalition is the leading role played by tribal components (badu) of the Kuwaiti population that tend to vote as independent blocs. Members of the tribal population, once thought to be reliably loyal to the ruling family, have become increasingly outspoken in their criticisms of the existing government system. The bad blood seems to go both ways, as the government has become fed up with the outspoken statements of tribal opposition leaders. Members of the Ajman tribe continue to decry the 2014 revocation of citizenship from Islamist and tribe member Abdullah Barghash, while Mutairi members criticize the imprisonment of firebrand Musallam al-Barrak for insulting the country’s emir. Having thus antagonized two of Kuwait’s largest tribes, the government faces a more diverse opposition than it has in the past. This is not to say, necessarily, that this opposition would be successful in the upcoming elections, even if all members were to run. As the tribal element becomes more demanding in both the economy and politics, some urban elites have worked to preserve their own status by backing the present regime more strongly – a role different than what urban elements have played in the past.
There is a sense among members of the opposition, then, that regardless of electoral outcomes, major political reform is not likely to come to Kuwait. With elections increasingly seen as illegitimate by much of the opposition, it has turned to other means of expressing dissent. Yet the government has cracked down, with increasing regularity, on the outlets used by opposition members, using a variety of tools. Between 2014 and 2015, the Kuwaiti Cabinet stripped the citizenship of 33 Kuwaitis, many of them outspoken members of the opposition. A judge suspended the licenses of two opposition newspapers in April 2014, following complaints filed with the Ministry of Information, after the outlets published a story on videos that allegedly showed former government officials planning a coup. A year later, the Information Ministry cancelled the licenses of two television channels associated with one of the previously shut newspapers, allegedly due to financial losses. The government’s cybercrimes law, which came into effect in January, criminalizes criticism of the government, religious figures, and leaders of foreign governments. And the government seems willing to enforce this law: In May, three members of the increasingly fractious ruling family were sentenced to five years in prison for insulting the emir in a WhatsApp group chat. Last week, activist Sara al-Drees was detained for tweets considered insulting to the emir.
Kuwaiti Opposition in Search of Tactical Unity
With space for political discussion increasingly restricted and with a Parliament considered ineffective, Kuwait’s deeply divided opposition faces a challenge of trying to effect change in an unbending system. Even though members of this opposition appear to have much in common, in terms of advocating for changes to the electoral law, the passage of a political parties law, and the empowerment of Parliament, they seem unable to coordinate their strategies to achieve these goals. Meanwhile, the government seems more motivated than ever to prevent them from being successful in doing so.