Leader Development & Education for Sustained Peace Program: Cross-Cultural, Geopolitical & Regional Education

In Review: Kuwait’s Third Parliamentary Elections in 17 Months

From our 26 July LDESP Middle East News Update – The Gulf and the Levant.map_of_kuwait

Keeping up with Kuwaiti domestic politics can be difficult. For example, on 27 July they carried out their third parliamentary elections in 17 months. At the time of writing, the polling was still under way; however, the following will provide a background to the elections regardless of the victors. First, the BBC offers a very concise and simple “Q&A on Kuwait’s Parliamentary Election”:

“Less than six months after it was elected, the country’s top court found that the electoral commission overseeing the polls was illegitimate. However, the court upheld controversial amendments to the electoral law, which reduced the number of candidates each Kuwaiti can vote for from four to one. The changes sparked violent street protests and prompted the opposition’s boycott of the polls in December 2012, as well as of the elections this year.

None of the parliaments elected in Kuwait since 2003 have managed to complete their four-year tenure, and there is a growing call from Kuwaiti citizens for more political stability so that challenges facing the country can be addressed more effectively.

How powerful is the Kuwaiti parliament?

Kuwait is a constitutional monarchy and has the oldest directly-elected parliament among the Arab Gulf states, being first elected in 1963. It is also among the most powerful.

In addition to law-making powers, the unicameral National Assembly can hold the government to account. Even though the prime minister and the government are appointed by the emir, parliament has the power to veto government decisions and even dismiss the prime minister or any minister.

The emir, however, has the final say in policy decisions.

The Kuwaiti National Assembly is made of 50 elected MPs, who represent five 10-seat constituencies. Alongside them sit 15 unelected cabinet members, who enjoy the same voting rights as other members of parliament. Under Kuwait’s constitution, the government has to include at least one elected MP.

Does parliament normally get on with the government?

There has frequently been friction between the National Assembly and the government, resulting in parliament being suspended several times.

The assembly elected in February 2012 was dominated by opposition figures and was in confrontation with the government on several occasions. The annulment of those elections and subsequent changes to the election law put Kuwait’s relatively liberal political credentials in doubt.

The assembly chosen under the new “one person, one vote” system in December 2012 was made up entirely of loyalist MPs after a widespread opposition boycott.

Who are the candidates?

Over 300 candidates, including eight women, are running in the election. Political parties are not allowed in Kuwait, so candidates contesting parliamentary elections nominate themselves and run as independents.

Most of the candidates represent various tribes, liberals from the National Democratic Alliance, and Shia and hardline Sunni Salafist groups.

What are the key issues?

The fact that Kuwait has had six National Assemblies since 2003 has contributed to a growing number of challenges facing in the country, including sluggish infrastructure development and slow economic reforms. This has been reflected in campaigning, with most candidates focusing on local issues such as employment, housing, health care and education.

Many candidates have criticised the Kuwaiti government’s offer of $4bn (£2.6bn) in aid to Egypt, saying that the money would be better spent on solving the housing crisis in the country.

Roughly two-thirds of Kuwait’s population are foreigners, mostly low-paid workers from Asia, and their treatment is a sensitive issue. In one opinion poll, almost half of respondents said the biggest change they would like to see after the elections is more leniency towards expatriates. Thousands of them have recently been deported from Kuwait due to problems with their visas or residency papers, or as a penalty for traffic offences.

What is the opposition saying?

Most opposition figures are boycotting the poll in protest against changes introduced to the electoral system in October 2012. Prior to them, each Kuwaiti voted for four candidates in their constituency, but the emir reduced the number to one, arguing that this brings Kuwait into line with other countries.

His opponents, however, allege that the new system allows the government to manipulate election results.

Compared to the parliamentary election in December 2012, the opposition is not as united in boycotting the polls this year. Many tribes and liberal candidates said they would participate this time.

There have also been allegations of vote-buying in the run-up to the polls, and more than 50 people have been arrested on these charges.” (BBC)

Imagine waiting in election lines… in July… in Kuwait… during Ramadan: Aside from the unique tempo with which Kuwaiti elections take place, the most recent iteration presents a new experience for several reasons. First, the elections are being held in the month of Ramadan, during which Muslims do not drink or eat from sunrise to sunset. (See Ramadan Overshadows Kuwait Elections,” Kuwaiti Times). Second, expounding on the “one person, one vote,” rule mentioned in the BBC’s Q&A, the Guardian’s Ian Black explained (when it was first passed in November) the nuances of why the opposition is angered by this recent change. “Kuwait Emir’s Change to Election Rules Stirs Signs of Arab Spring”:

“November evenings are balmy on Kuwait City’s waterfront, and there is a festive atmosphere in Irada Square as crowds gather for another protest rally. Women swathed in black mix with others in jeans while men in dishdashas and red-checked ghutra headdresses sip tea on Persian rugs spread on the spiky grass.

Speakers are hammering home the call to boycott the 27 July elections because the emir, Sheikh Sabah al-Ahmad Al Sabah, has decreed a change to voting rules that will weaken the opposition. Stewards display spent teargas canisters that were fired to break up an unlicensed protest last month.

Unlike elsewhere in the Middle East and North Africa, Kuwaitis are not seeking to overthrow their regime. Irada (the Arabic name means “will”) is tamer than Cairo’s Tahrir Square. Violence is very rare.

Yet there is no mistaking the depth of divisions in this small but fabulously wealthy country – and the anxiety about how they will play out. Its ultraconservative Saudi and Emirati neighbours are watching nervously.

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Four Fingers: Tribal opposition protesters hold up four fingers, while looking up at a police helicopter. They are against new voting rules that lower the number of candidates each Kuwaiti can vote for from four down to one; December 2012
Image Source:Kuwait Vote Boycott Deepens City-Tribal Rift,” Gulf News

“The emir’s decree was the straw that broke the camel’s back,” said Sultan al-Majrubi, a young activist who was injured when special forces broke up October’s big demonstration. “The Sabah family need to change from the inside. They are not thinking about the future and their credit with the people is running out.”

Kuwait is still the most democratic state in the Gulf. Its “springtime” dates back to 2006, long before the overthrow of the autocrats who ruled Tunisia, Egypt and Libya.

Last November the prime minister, the emir’s nephew, was forced to quit in the face of allegations that MPs had been bribed to support the government. Protests then were the largest ever seen in the region. Parliament was dissolved in June.

The opposition is a coalition of youth groups, disgruntled tribes and Islamists. Many sport orange ribbons – a nod to the revolution in distant Ukraine. Social media play a vital role. The Twitter hashtag #KarametWatan (“dignity of the nation”) has been used with stunning effect to organise protests and outwit the government.

“If you look at the slogans, the empowerment of the grassroots and the emergence of civil society activism then yes, we are part of the Arab spring,” argues political scientist Shafeeq Ghabra. “People want dignity and political participation and equality before the law. But it’s not a revolution here.”

Kuwaitis suffer neither hunger nor poverty. The country’s oil riches have funded for a lavish welfare system since independence in 1960. Its 1.2 million citizens pay no tax but the system is rife with paternalism and wasta (connections or nepotism). Last year the emir gave every citizen 1,000 dinars (£2,210) in grants and free food coupons. “Kuwait is a wealthy society so people have a lot to lose,” smiles Jaafar Behbehani, a businessman. “That’s why many support the status quo.”

In the capital’s diwaniyas – informal all-male gatherings held in private homes – the election boycott is being hotly debated. Ostensibly, the emir is modernising the system by reducing the number of votes from four to one.

But his aim seems clear. “They are crafting a new parliament by having it customised for their own needs,” complains a twentysomething consultant handing out boycott badges under the palm trees in Irada Square.

(…) Protesters warn that fiddling with the electoral system will not help if root causes are not addressed. “The government blames the national assembly for being an obstacle to development,” says engineer Ghazi al-Shammar. “But the problem really is that they want to make it into a one-man show.”

For Ghabra the conclusion is clear: “By not listening to the people the government is creating a bigger problem.”

Profound social changes lie behind the unrest. Tribes that came from Saudi Arabia in the 1970s have multiplied and tensions grown between them and Kuwait’s urban community, descendants of the pearl merchants and traders of old. “We are against corrupt institutions run by some of the sheikhs and businessmen in their own interests,” says Mohammed Ruwayhil of the opposition people’s bloc. And like elsewhere in the region, over half of the population are under 25, many educated abroad at government expense.

Deference has faded. “We were always told by our fathers that at a diwaniya there was a strict seating pattern,” reflects a thoughtful Sabah minister. “The further you were away from the centre the less you were expected to speak. But with Twitter and WhatsApp and all the social media everyone can speak their mind.”

Repression is mild by regional standards. State security agents hanging around Irada Square are easily spotted. “People do get slapped around and sometimes put into solitary confinement but there is no torture,” says one activist.

Still, official patience is wearing thin. Arrests for the Kuwaiti equivalent of lese-majesty have increased. Musallam al-Barrak, the firebrand opposition leader, was imprisoned for 10 days after issuing an unprecedented public warning to the emir over his election decree – and (falsely) accusing Jordan’s King Abdullah, (who is also struggling with demands for political change), of sending in mercenaries to crush protests.

(…) Liberals and nationalists are quick to lambast the Muslim Brotherhood – known in Kuwait as the Islamic Constitutional Movement – and accuse it of conspiring to create a new caliphate under the orders of the new Egyptian government. But the claims seem wildly exaggerated and western diplomats privately dismiss them. “There is an Islamist presence, but they are very pragmatic,” is the assessment of Ghanima al-Oteibi, a secular student leader. “The Kuwaiti government is attacking the Ikhwan (Brotherhood) because they need Gulf support,” suggests Saad al-Ajmi, a former minister.” (Guardian)

An article, originally published in Arabic in the Pan Arab publication Al-Hayat by Hamad al-Jasser explains how “Problems, Lack of Enthusiasm Mark Kuwait Elections,” with particular focus on the legitimacy of the elections when such a large portion of the opposition aimed to boycott:

“A very lukewarm atmosphere is surrounding the electoral campaigns of about 300 candidates for Kuwait’s National Assembly (Parliament), amid ongoing political congestion as a result of the opposition boycott. This comes as the firmly established crisis has persisted since June, after the constitutional court upheld a decision to dissolve the previous Parliament in which the opposition won the majority of seats.

Most political groups, currents and tribal leaders said that they will boycott the elections. However, Kuwaiti Emir Sheikh Sabah Al-Ahmad Al-Sabah has repeatedly called for participation and confirmed that the amendments to the electoral law — which are at the core of the controversy — do not violate the constitution and were added in the public interest.

Image source: photo by REUTERS/Jassim Mohammed

Image source: photo by REUTERS/Jassim Mohammed

The abstention of 40 out of 50 ex-members of Parliament indicates that the boycott is expanding. The opposition launched a campaign under the slogan “Boycott” to persuade the public not to go to the polls at the beginning of next month. The opposition selected the color orange as a symbol for the boycott. Opposition activists are hanging orange banners and ribbons on their cars and homes, and posting orange photos on their Twitter accounts, while the government supporters opted for the color blue and launched a campaign entitled “I Will Participate.” The activists’ blogs and opinion columns in Kuwaiti newspapers are filled with orange and blue articles.

Opposition members said they expect the turnout rate to be less than 30%, compared with more than 70% in the previous elections. Information Minister Sheikh Mohammad Al-Abdullah Al-Sabah said, “We hope that the participation rate in the upcoming election exceeds the previous one.” He then added, “Whatever the voting rate is, the results will be legitimate.” The electoral law in Kuwait doesn’t require any minimum voter turnout to acknowledge the results of an election.

Security personnel used force when dealing with the demonstrations and marches that the opposition had organized to oppose the amendment to the electoral law. They also arrested a number of demonstrators. Despite that, the opposition has called once again for a large march on the evening of Nov. 30 — the eve of the election — to convince the highest percentage of people possible to refrain from participating.

The candidates’ campaigns are very lukewarm and their offices and camps are only hosting a few supporters and curious people. This situation is not similar in any way to the traditional landscape of Kuwaiti elections, where crowded seminars and clamorous statements used to take place. Local media, particularly newspapers, do not find many articles to publish regarding the candidates’ seminars. Rather, seminars have turned into campaigns against the opposition and “orangists,” instead of serving as a way of showing off a candidate’s electoral program.

The Shiites (who constitute 15% of Kuwaitis) are the exception, and generally tend to support participation in the elections, with the exception of some liberals who have said that they will boycott them. The fact that electoral campaigns are occurring in the month of Muharram in the Islamic calendar has given the Shiite candidates’ campaigns a religious character, as they coincide with the Shiite holiday of Ashura. It is expected that Shiites will win an increased number of seats, in addition to the seven they had in the previous Parliament. This is expected given that the majority of Sunnis are boycotting, particularly the tribes — who represent almost half of the voters.” (Al-Monitor translation by Hamad al-Jasser, Al-Hayat)

More about the candidates, Al Bawaba reports: “Reports in Kuwait said that 43 people signed up on the fourth day of the registration process for the parliamentary elections scheduled for July 27. The new hopefuls take the total number of candidates for the 50 green parliament seats to 179, including four women. However, as Kuwaiti women cautiously take up their latest battle for parliamentary seats, the elections seemed headed towards a new chapter of suspense after two lawyers filed two separate petitions to the administrative court to have them reported. One petition, filed by Adel Abdul Hadi, a lawyer, on behalf of a client, claimed the call for the elections on July 27 was not legally sound “as it was issued by a cabinet that had no such right since it did not include an elected member of parliament.” Under Kuwaiti laws, the cabinet must have at least one minister who is an elected Member of Parliament. In the current Cabinet, Dhikra Al Rashidi, the minister of social affairs and labour, is the elected MP who was voted in on December 1. (“Four Women Among 179 Hopefuls for Kuwait Elections,” Al Bawaba)

Kuwait Headlineskuwait-flag

U.N. Awards Kuwait $1 Billion from Iraq Invasion Fund

A United Nations body that handles war reparations for Iraq’s 1990 invasion of Kuwait said 25 July it had handed over a further $1.07 billion (810 million euros) to the emirate. The payment, related to damage to oil facilities and resulting financial losses, brings to $42.3 billion the total sum handed out by the United Nations Compensation Commission (UNCC). Some $10.1 billion awarded by the UNCC to a string of claimants still remains to be paid out. In addition to Kuwait, more than 100 governments and international organizations have been allocated funds by the UNCC for distribution to 1.5 million successful claimants. The UNCC was set up by the U.N. Security Council in 1991, the year that a U.S.-led coalition drove then Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein’s forces out of Kuwait. Its funds are drawn from a U.N.-mandated levy of five percent on Iraqi oil exports, whose continued existence has come in for criticism given that Saddam was ousted in 2003 in the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq. (Al Arabiya, AFP)

Kuwait’s Ruling Emir Puts Diplomacy First

Hours after Qatar’s emir abdicated in favor of his son, Kuwait’s ruler jumped on a plane to Doha to embrace the new young emir in person rather than sending a congratulatory cable as other Gulf Arab leaders did. The direct diplomatic gesture was a classic move for Kuwait’s 84-year-old hereditary emir, Sheikh Sabah al-Ahmad al-Sabah. Sheikh Sabah has been dubbed the “dean of Arab diplomacy” for his efforts to strengthen Kuwait’s relations in the Middle East after Iraq’s 1990 invasion of his country. He spent four decades as foreign minister before becoming emir in 2006. He sees maintaining good relationships as vital to U.S. ally Kuwait, a small state with huge oil wealth bordered by bigger neighbors Saudi Arabia and Iraq and across the Gulf from Iran. It is testament to his diplomatic skill that Kuwait is on good terms with all three states, while they have often been at odds with each other. Kuwait has promised $4 billion in aid to Egypt, which together with contributions from Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates makes up a $12 billion Gulf Arab package that shows support for the Egyptian army’s ousting of Islamist President Mohamed Mursi on July 3. Despite some public unease about rapprochement with former arch-foe Iraq, analysts and diplomats give high marks to Sheikh Sabah for his pragmatic efforts to rebuild ties with Baghdad. Sheikh Sabah visited Iraq in early 2012, a move seen as a breakthrough for two states which had been bitter adversaries. “In terms of foreign policy, the emir has been visionary,” a Kuwait-based diplomat said. But at home, tensions between Sheikh Sabah’s hand-picked government and the elected parliament have been fraught, holding up investment and economic reforms. (Reuters)

Human Cost of Kuwait’s Crackdown on Illegal Expats

As consul general in the Philippines embassy in Kuwait, it is his job to respond to pleas for aid from his compatriots, mostly domestic staff in desperate straits. He has received calls to help women poised to jump from balconies to escape abusive employers. He once rescued a woman running down a busy highway, fleeing a sponsor whose repeated beatings had left her with a limp. His latest task is different: helping hundreds of workers who have overstayed their visas or illegally switched jobs to regularise their status or return home. This hefty addition to his workload came after the Kuwaiti government announced in March that it aimed to reduce the number of foreign workers in the country by 100,000 each year. About 84,000 Philippine women are employed as domestic workers in Kuwait, and Mr Dado estimates another 5,000 to 6,000 are in the country illegally. With the government now accelerating measures to regulate its labour force, he deals with as many as 100 new cases a week of Philippine workers seeking the embassy’s assistance to legalise their documents. Kuwait is one of several Arabian Gulf states that have stepped up efforts to curb illegal labour. Saudi Arabia announced new guidelines in April requiring expatriate workers to regularise their status or face fines, prison and deportation. After scared workers stayed home by the legion instead of going to work, paralysing business in several cities, King Abdullah extended the grace period for labourers to put their paperwork in order. The initial three-month reprieve was recently extended to November. The get-tough measures come at a time when there is increasing pressure on governments across the Gulf to employ their own citizens and improve the quality of government services. In Kuwait, expatriate workers, most of whom are in low-paid jobs, make up more than two thirds of the country’s 3.8 million people. While unemployment among Kuwaiti nationals is relatively low at about 3 per cent, 70 per cent of the jobless are under the age of 35. Local media has reported that “several thousand” foreigners have been deported in recent months. Yet while there are an increasing number of voices who say that the size of the expatriate resident population has grown too fast and led to overcrowding on the roads and in medical clinics and neighbourhoods, nearly everyone here admits that some foreign workers will be needed for years to come. (The National)

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