The Day After “Victory”: Kuwait’s 2009 Election and the Contentious Present

by Mary Ann Tétreault , Mohammed Al-Ghanim | published July 8, 2009

For background, see Mary Ann Tétreault, “Kuwait’s Annus Mirabilis,” Middle East Report Online, September 7, 2006.

See also Mary Ann Tétreault, “Three Emirs and a Tale of Two Transitions,” Middle East Report Online, February 10, 2006.

The May 2009 parliamentary election in Kuwait produced a number of surprising results. Occurring on the fourth anniversary of the achievement of full political rights for Kuwaiti women, the outcome attracting the most commentary was the victory of four female candidates. But there were other happenings of note. Doctrinaire religious candidates ran behind women in several districts. In fact, all of the “political groups” that function as Kuwait’s substitute for political parties did poorly on May 16, whether their orientation is center-left or religious. Even more telling is the fact that so many candidates, including several who had run as group representatives in previous elections, chose to run as independents. Although the turnover of seats was normal for Kuwait—there are 21 new faces in 2009 as compared to 22 the last time around—a few old stalwarts were defeated, including ‘Abdallah al-Nibari, a founder of the Kuwaiti Democratic Forum, which chose not to endorse candidates.

The May 16 polling was the third parliamentary contest since 2006 in Kuwait, often described as the “most democratic” of the Arab Gulf states. (The second set of elections occurred in 2008.) Regular elections of the National Assembly have been held since shortly after Kuwaiti independence from Great Britain in 1961. The Shi‘i Muslim minority and the Sunni majority have long been represented in the assembly. The emir, however, has frequently disbanded the legislature when it displeased him, and from 1976 to 1981, and again from 1986 until the Iraqi invasion of 1990, representative governance was effectively suspended. The ruling Al Sabah family promised new elections as part of its case for reinstatement in power when Iraqi occupation ended, and these were held in 1992. Since then, the emirate has edged unevenly toward a political and economic opening.

The move toward independent candidacies in 2009 can be interpreted as a rejection of proto-parties and therefore as a setback in the rationalization of Kuwaiti politics. Yet this trend also hints at a new role for established “political groups” and might even breathe life into efforts to legalize actual political parties that would be more broadly constituted than the groups that exist today. Another surprise is that the voters did not return the “same old” collection of personalities, thereby sweeping off the table the emir’s favorite excuse for dissolving pesky parliaments, even though one incumbent who was returned to office indicated his intention to “grill” the minister of interior in open legislative session during the campaign. The primary question raised by the elections’ outcome and persisting into the contentious present is whether or not the emir will respond to the elections by dealing forthrightly with popular pressures for liberalization.

The Big News

In 2005, Kuwaiti women achieved full political rights, including the rights to vote and run for office, after years of dedicated activism on their part and just as many years of foot dragging by the state. No woman was elected to Parliament in the first two campaigns after the new law was passed, those in 2006 and 2008, and snide remarks about women’s “failures” as candidates soon became commonplace. As though determined to drive a stake through the heart of that canard, four women won resounding victories on May 16 and a fifth attracted over 6,600 votes in a “tribal” constituency, also a victory of sorts because such regions are stereotypically conservative. Kuwait elects members of its National Assembly from five districts. Each voter is able to make up to four choices, and the top ten vote getters in each district win one of the assembly’s 50 seats. Ma‘souma Mubarak came in first in her district; Salwa al-Jassar came in tenth in hers, ‘Asil al-‘Awadhi second and Rula Dashti seventh in theirs. All four were sent to Parliament by the three mostly urban districts, but Thekra al-Rashidi made a good showing in one of the two outlying districts. Her fifteenth-place finish shows that “tribal” voters should not be dismissed as so enamored by “tradition” that they will not vote for an energetic woman. The women won without benefit of special favors or the gender quotas that obtain in Iraq and elsewhere in the region.

All four of the new women parliamentarians hold advanced degrees and three taught at Kuwait University, but otherwise they are far from alike. Two are Shi‘i and two are Sunni; one from each main branch of Islam wears hijab. Economist Rula Dashti runs a family business and has spoken frequently on economic rationalization. She was the first woman to head a mixed-sex professional association in Kuwait. Salwa al-Jassar teaches education and chairs the Woman’s Empowerment Center. Most of her students are from tribal areas. Ma‘souma Mubarak is a political scientist with several years’ experience as chair of her department at the University. More recently, she made history as the first Kuwaiti woman appointed to the cabinet, where she served as planning, communications and health minister in three different governments. ‘Asil al-‘Awadhi is a philosopher with wide-ranging interests, including civil liberties. She just missed winning a parliamentary seat in 2008 but her success in attracting so many votes then paved the way for the women’s victories in 2009. All four are aware of the hopes of constituencies that spill over formal district lines and even national boundaries. They are equally aware that their every word and move will be closely scrutinized, by those who wish them ill as well as those who wish them well.

But the prospects of the women deputies, and those of their male colleagues, depend on more than their individual merits. Since 2006, Kuwait has been afflicted with a political paralysis like that of its fellow Gulf states, whose once promising transitions from petro-princedoms to more politically open systems seem to be stuck. Kuwait is a transition bellwether: The emirate has stepped further ahead than other Gulf states and the current obstacles to change there are the same as those faced by aspiring democratizers all down the coast. The admission of women to full political rights and their rapid success in achieving elective office are two giant steps forward, but since the emir retains the power to dissolve Parliament, the trajectory could be arrested at any time. Can the women deputies help Kuwaiti politics to get unstuck?

New Faces and Old Issues

The election of women and other newcomers reflected the perception among voters, expressed often during the short campaign season, that fundamental political change is needed. Kuwaitis are disgusted with a system that has produced election after election but failed to bring effective governance. Several MPs joined al-Nibari in refusing to run in 2009, sensing, in the words of Muhammad al-Saqr, that the new assembly would “also fail to implement the awaited reforms.” Such reforms would include passage of a long-deferred economic stimulus bill and a plan to repair Kuwait’s sagging infrastructure.

Before the emir dissolved Parliament, Kuwait was blanketed by ominous rumors that this would be the last dissolution for some time because it would not be followed by an election—that it would hence be the third unconstitutional dissolution in Kuwaiti history. Concern that the rumors might be true, and especially unease at the emir’s delay in announcing the date of the voting, influenced the decision of at least one political group about its role in the campaign. Meanwhile, the rumors also encouraged average citizens to disengage from democracy, some telling reporters that it is a system “alien” to Kuwait. Such talk did not stop after the voting. The efforts to alienate voters, both covert and overt, may help to explain the lower turnout in 2009, but the people’s choices at the polls bespeak their continued hopes for change.

The number and quality of newcomers to Parliament is one such indication, but heavy turnover in the body is a double-edged sword. In Kuwait, where political quarrels seem to go on for decades, new faces promise the possibility that old issues can be recast and that other important issues can migrate from the periphery to the center of national attention. But turnover also erodes institutional memory. Some newcomers, moreover, see election as a route to personal gain and have little commitment to the constitution or public service. The Kuwaiti parliament has experienced repeated de facto closures thanks to failure to achieve a quorum. A few members are chronic absentees who draw their salaries and reap increasingly generous benefits nonetheless. Other new members lack legislative and even life experience, and are vulnerable to bullying or bribes.

These realities underpin another long-standing and strongly vocalized demand of Kuwaiti voters, the imperative to reduce corruption. Concern about corruption has shot up along with Kuwait’s position on Transparency International’s Corruption Perception Index: Kuwait ranked number 46 in 2006, rising to 60 in 2007 and 65 in 2008. Along with the new faces, several veterans known to be strong critics of corrupt practices were returned to office on May 16. They include two of the three members of the Popular Bloc, a liberal-populist grouping that had opposed two expensive construction projects because the rules on awarding contracts had been violated. The Popular Bloc also opposed a government-proposed stimulus bill that it characterized as a thinly disguised bailout of influential investors.

The Popular Bloc contributed directly to the crisis that led to the dissolution of the 2008 parliament by seeking to interpellate the prime minister, Sheikh Nasir al-Muhammad Al Sabah, who happens to be the emir’s nephew. The refusal of the Al Sabah to permit the prime minister to submit to questioning had also precipitated the unplanned election of 2006. Although the reasons for the confrontation between government and Parliament were different on that occasion, they were equally threatening to Al Sabah authority. The ruling family’s unwillingness to share power is one of the two main obstacles to liberalization. The other is the power struggle within the ruling family itself, a conflict that has become so public that no one can pretend it is not happening.

Sheikh Sabah’s first appointments as emir disappointed Kuwaitis for their overall mediocrity. They also showed that the new ruler intended to make his own al-Jabir branch of the Al Sabah dominant in Kuwaiti politics well into the future. Sheikh Sabah acceded to the throne in early 2006, ending a brief succession crisis that followed the death of the previous emir and the physical inability of then-Crown Prince Saad al-‘Abdallah, who suffered from several serious ailments, including dementia, to take his place. Saad’s long illness had already necessitated the granting of a perennial demand of opposition groups in Parliament, the separation of the positions of crown prince and prime minister. After Sheikh Sabah moved from the premiership to become emir, there was little enthusiasm for recombining the posts among legislators and other opinion leaders. Keeping them separate also made it possible to divide responsibility between the two contending branches of the Al Sabah by naming an al-Jabir to one and an al-Salim to the other.

The new emir kept the positions separate but named two al-Jabirs to fill them, marking a turning point in the history of power sharing between the two branches. Only one minister in the new cabinet came from the rival al-Salim clan. Thus the al-Jabirs asserted their authority over the succession and the government at the same time.

Family machinations contributed directly to the cabinet crisis that provoked the 2008 election. In March of that year, sectarian ill will exploded when Kuwaiti Shi‘a publicly mourned Imad Mughnieh, the shadowy Shi‘i militant assassinated in Damascus and subsequently hailed by Lebanon’s Hizballah as one of its top military minds. Sectarianism inside and outside Parliament, including incendiary television broadcasts over two stations owned by one faction of the ruling family, pushed the cabinet to resign on March 17. Two days later, the emir, who professed to be surprised at the mass resignations, dissolved the legislative assembly.

The Law and Law Enforcement

The latest dissolution, in April 2009, had been telegraphed for weeks. No one was surprised when it happened.

A major reason behind the emir’s call for early elections was continued antagonism between MPs and cabinet ministers. Recalling the more deferential parliaments of the 1960s, citizens and members of the government refer to the “deterioration of the language of dialogue” (tadanni’ lughat al-hiwar)—on the part of current MPs—as the main reason for the persistent political stalemate in Kuwait. Building on this, prior to the 2009 election the government broadened its definition of “deteriorated language” to include personal attacks upon ministers and criticism of the role of the ruling family in public life. To discourage such criticism, the government took two measures. The first, directly related to the election, was to delay until the very last moment the required emiri decree permitting candidate registration.[1] The regime employed a similar tactic in 2008, when the campaign was scheduled to coincide with the European Football Championship, which would presumably glue voters to their television sets. The second maneuver will entrench what might be called “rule by law” as opposed to rule of law. (Rule of law is generally defined as a system where the state and citizens are equally subject to the law. In contrast, a “rule by law” system is governed by a set of laws that support the primacy of a regime.)[2] In 2006 a press law was adopted that imposed severe restrictions on Kuwaiti journalists and also on freedom of speech. Its provisions enable the government to crack down on the opposition while arguing that it is merely upholding the law. Empowered by the press law, security personnel arrested several vocal candidates who had criticized Al Sabah cabinet members. The three most prominent arrestees were tribal candidates Khalid al-Tahous and Dayfallah Abu Ramya and the former municipal counselor Khalifa al-Kharafi.

Prior to the call for early elections, the prime minister, Sheikh Nasir, submitted his sixth resignation since assuming his position in 2006. Afterward, the ruling family held a consultation whose minutes were leaked to the public. The notes indicated that senior Al Sabah members were thinking of replacing Sheikh Nasir with the deputy prime minister and minister of defense, Jabir al-Mubarak. In response, Dayfallah Abu Ramya charged Jabir al-Mubarak with being unfit for the job. The authorities construed these statements as an infringement upon the emir’s power to appoint and dismiss ministers. On April 17, Abu Ramya was arrested by the National Security Forces, the Kuwaiti equivalent of the dreaded mukhabarat in other authoritarian Arab countries. After several days, he was released on bail and permitted to register as a candidate. His arrest attracted extensive media attention and no doubt contributed to his substantial margin of electoral victory. Abu Ramya received over 13,000 votes, 2,000 more than he had won in 2008. Although his case remains under review, as an MP he enjoys full immunity that can be removed only by a parliamentary vote. Also, during the first grilling conducted by the new parliament, Abu Ramya’s stance toward the government appears to have softened, signaling a possible rapprochement.

Another tribal candidate, trade unionist Khalid al-Tahous, had been arrested five days earlier than Abu Ramya. During a rally, al-Tahous had warned the minister of interior that Kuwaiti tribes would oppose any attempts to enforce the law prohibiting tribal primaries,[3] recalling the violence of the 2008 campaign, when tribesmen surrounded a police station demanding the release of persons arrested for violating the law. The following day, National Security men were sent to al-Tahous’ residence in southern Kuwait to seize him for incitement against the state. After several days of interrogation, he apologized for his statements and was released on bail. Having won in a tribal primary, al-Tahous was already a frontrunner in the fifth district (almost completely dominated by tribes). Like Abu Ramya, his arrest was highly publicized and he came in sixth in the balloting, securing over 14,000 votes.

The arrests of al-Tahous and Abu Ramya exacerbated animosity between the tribes and urban Kuwaitis. The tribes viewed the arrests as an intentional crackdown on their political culture, noting that urbanites are not similarly vulnerable. In an apparent bow to tribal pressure, on April 19 security personnel arrested Khalifa al-Kharafi, an urban candidate of the second district, for saying during a TV interview aired over a year earlier that neither the emir nor the other Al Sabah possessed the faculties needed to run the state. Although the constitution prohibits criticism of the emir, it is the 2006 press law, with its arguably unconstitutional restrictions on freedom of speech, that extends this ban to the “the ruling establishment.” Al-Kharafi lost in the elections, and without immunity, he is likely to be taken to court.

The ruling family’s attempts to mold the election results have already backfired, bringing a virtually instant challenge to the authority of the minister in charge. The first grilling of the new parliamentary session, that of Interior Minister Jabir al-Khalid Al Sabah, was undertaken in part because of tribal allegations of uneven enforcement of election laws. Comparing 2008 and 2009, the selective implementation of the law is highly evident. In 2008, the law prohibiting tribal primaries was enforced for the first time since being adopted a decade earlier. In 2009, by contrast, tribal primaries proceeded without interference. It appears that the regime wanted merely to curb tribal influence in 2008, while the next year it aimed to quell growing opposition across the board.

Kuwaiti-Style Independents

Robust as Kuwait’s parliament may be in comparison to its Gulf neighbors’, it lacks what is generally regarded as an integral component of parliamentary systems: political parties. In lieu of parties, the ruling family has acquiesced to the formation of political groups that act as pseudo-parties. For the most part, these groups are ideological in orientation, though some are clan-based. Kuwaiti liberals, for example, have formed the National Democratic Alliance (which encompasses the Kuwaiti Democratic Forum and the National Platform); Sunni Islamists have coalesced in the Islamic Constitutional Movement, which is the Kuwaiti chapter of the Muslim Brotherhood, and the Salafi Group, whose three factions propagate the Wahhabi Islam prevalent in Saudi Arabia. There is also a loose Shi‘i Islamist coalition, the Islamic National Alliance.

When, in 2006, Parliament reduced the number of electoral districts from 25 to five, observers believed the new system would elevate the position of political groups as organizers of election strategies and campaigns.[4] In effect, the groups would serve the same function as tribal primaries: After all, what other mechanism did Kuwait have for making crowded ballots intelligible to voters? Yet the 2008 and 2009 elections both yielded results suggesting that voters are able to choose candidates without this assistance. In 2008, the National Democratic Alliance fielded a list of eight candidates running in three different districts. Five lost. In 2009, the Alliance withheld overt support for or even endorsement of any candidate. Two of its 2008 candidates—‘Asil al-‘Awadhi and ‘Abd al-Rahman al-Anjiri—ran as independents and won. In 2008, the Islamic Constitutional Movement also ran a list and suffered losses. In 2009, it ran candidates in four different districts. All but one (who ran with tribal endorsement) lost.

Why have political groups lost ground under a system initially predicted to bolster them? The groups have continued to serve as candidate recruiters, but they have never been the only route to political visibility. Most candidates undergo a “grooming phase” before making public their intention to run for Parliament. Rather than simply associating with a political group, a person can run for a seat on the board of a local cooperative (jam‘iyya ta‘awuniyya) to mobilize support from notables in the district or run for the board of a sports club to acquire nationwide stature. The most well-known aspiring parliamentarians might actually be hampered by running as part of a list, especially if that would require them to campaign alongside less prominent candidates.

Kuwaiti society is peculiarly tormented by the nature of political allegiances. It is common to hear Kuwaitis speculate about where a politician’s allegiances “really” lie. Many politicians refuse to identify with one group or another, claiming to be independents able to withstand pressure from both the government and political groups. They proclaim their commitment to individually held positions and ideals and, in consequence, often acquire wide public support. This may explain why some younger candidates prefer to campaign as independents rather than join a political list.

Kuwaiti-style independence offers advantages to election winners. Those whose “real” positions correspond to those of a political group, but who identify themselves as independents during campaigns, may take positions antithetical to their political group. Thus they can simultaneously emphasize their differences with that political group to attract the independent voter and remind the group’s base of those times when they did advocate its policy preferences. Such triangulation enables “independents” to expand their constituencies and leaves them freer to build or participate in coalitions among parliamentarians belonging to different and sometimes opposing camps.

Candidate grooming strategies and candidate preferences for independent status may also have a positive impact on civil society because of the growing importance of interest-based groups. Kuwaiti law sanctions the licensing of voluntary associations, many of them welfare organizations, which then receive funding and oversight from the state. Legally, such organizations are permitted to work only upon their approved mandate—teachers’ associations, for example, are supposed to concern themselves exclusively with teacher pay and working conditions. In recent years, however, voluntary associations have become a part of the polarized political climate inasmuch as boards are aligned with one group. In contrast to the old-line welfare organizations, new groups are forming with memberships that transcend conventional political allegiances. Two that were active during the 2009 election are the information hub Vote for Kuwait and the more explicit advocacy organization Sawt al-Kuwait (Voice of Kuwait).

Unlike many of the older organizations, these groups select their leaders from multiple age brackets, including youth. Kuwaiti civil society has long incorporated youth as foot soldiers, but the new groups welcome youth in decision-making. Abandonment of the “generation gap” has brought new initiatives to Kuwaiti politics, especially with respect to voter mobilization and lobbying. Leaders of Vote for Kuwait created an interactive website providing regularly updated rally and public speaking schedules, statements issued by political groups, and the most up-to-date information on agreements between two or more candidates to convince their core supporters to vote for both them and their allies. The founders wanted to reach voters who were reluctant to attend a rally or speak with a candidate.

Sawt al-Kuwait also gathered information, about laws that restrict civil liberties, such as that limiting work hours for women, and published it alongside the names and photographs of MPs and how they had voted on the bills. Taking their cues from the 2006 “orange movement,” which promised to back candidates who supported the redistricting plan in the 2008 election, Sawt convinced several candidates to sign a pledge to repeal the sex segregation law. Passed in 1996, this law requires all public schools and universities to separate the sexes in classrooms and eventually to construct separate campuses for female and male students. Several MPs who signed did not fulfill their pledge, yet the precedent for a politics based on interests rather than patronage is very important.

Even though these groups are new, they exhibit an unusual degree of Kuwaiti-style independence and interest-based pragmatism. Like “independent” MPs, leaders of these groups realize that there are pressing issues upon which people of varying ideological persuasions converge. Although it is too early to judge their effectiveness, the appearance of interest-based civic organizations reveals growing political sophistication among Kuwaitis no longer willing to be sliced and diced into mutually exclusive and therefore easily manipulated strata. And although cross-cutting candidates and interest groups seem to be the antithesis of the “rational” politics envisioned by proponents of the legalization of political parties, both represent a locally embedded strategy for moving Kuwait away from the suffocating political climate that has produced an impasse in governance and anomie among citizens.

Stuck in Stalemate?

The small states on the Gulf have opened up significantly over the past decade. All but Saudi Arabia have held elections for national representative bodies (and Saudi Arabia held municipal council elections), and all but Saudi Arabia include women as voters and participants in representative assemblies. Investment and ownership laws have been liberalized and the region is more thoroughly and somewhat more equitably incorporated into the international economy than ever before. Yet the transition toward constitutionalism and rule of law appears to be stuck, trapped in the clash between the authoritarian ideals and practices of monarchical rulers and the aspirations and actions of citizens who want a stronger voice in governance.

In Kuwait, the stickiness centers on the refusal of the emir to appoint a cabinet able and willing to work with the parliament as well as with him. Prior to the accession of Sheikh Sabah, the stasis that has plagued Kuwait since the Iraqi invasion was occasionally overridden, often in response to conflicts between the ruling family and the political opposition. Some of this limited flexibility in governance grew out of the exhaustion of an aging emir and an ailing crown prince. Some also is likely to have been the result of a balance between the two rival branches of the ruling family. Now those structural supports for limited accommodation have disappeared, with the al-Jabirs virtually monopolizing the levers of power and the emir showing little tolerance for citizen agitation.

Direct illegal interference in elections by agents of the regime has been endemic since the 1960s; accusations of government vote buying made up part of the indictment against the interior minister during his June 2009 grilling. Together with manipulation of the electorate and electoral districts, and the increasingly frequent dismissals of parliaments, these actions show that the ruling family has not hesitated to use both fair and foul means to keep the National Assembly under its collective thumb.

Nonetheless, Kuwait’s constitution does place fetters on emiri dispatch. The emir can legislate by decree only when Parliament is not in session and, even then, his decrees must have the approval of a reconvened parliament to become permanent law. Members of the cabinet are allowed to vote on all but a few issues in Parliament, and they frequently act as emiri agents there, but the cabinet is prohibited from growing to a size that would enable the emir to veto legislation through his appointees, as the king of Bahrain can do under that country’s new constitution. The emir must work with the parliament and the parliament with the emir for the legislative process to function at all. Consequently, when the emir begins his relationship with a newly elected parliament by appointing a cabinet that includes members like Ahmad al-Fahd Al Sabah, a man who was ousted from office in 2006 as a result of public outcry against his questionable practices as oil and information minister, he is daring MPs who are serious about governance to push back. When they do, the cycle begins again.

What has become an almost annual ritual organized around the emir’s dissolution of an unsatisfactory parliament and an election to produce a new one appears to be alienating larger and larger numbers of Kuwaitis. Highly respected incumbents are refusing to run and voters are staying away from the polls. According to state figures, turnout in 2009 was just below 60 percent, a significant drop from the norm of around 80 percent. The introduction of women’s suffrage and candidacy might keep interest in participatory institutions from eroding further, but women MPs will not be a novelty forever. The clashing visions of governance in Kuwait must somehow be reconciled if the system itself is to survive.

Following the 2009 election, a number of elite, merchant-class Kuwaiti women were overheard assessing the quality of the four female victors this way: “They’re good, but they’re not us.” What will it take to convince elite women that the middle-class women who now serve in Parliament are part of the same “us”? Perhaps the same transformative force will be required to convince the Al Sabah that the broader “us” of Kuwait includes members of Parliament as well as themselves.

Endnotes


Article 107 of the Kuwaiti constitution requires the emir to issue two decrees. The first dissolves Parliament and the second calls for new elections. The latter can be issued any time within a 30-day window after Parliament has been dissolved. By issuing the second decree on the thirtieth day, the government shortened the campaign period, thereby limiting candidate-voter interaction.

For a more detailed discussion of this distinction, see Daniel Brumberg, Liberalization vs. Democracy: Understanding Arab Political Reform, Carnegie Endowment for International Peace Working Paper 37 (May 2003).

Tribal primaries are held to limit the number of candidates from a particular tribe running in an election district, thereby increasing the chances that representatives of that tribe will win. In return for pledges by the winners to be responsive to their demands, tribe members pledge to honor the results of the primary in the general election. Al-Qabas, April 11, 2009.

Nathan Brown, Kuwait’s 2008 Parliamentary Elections: A Setback for Democratic Islamism? (Washington: Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, May 2008), accessible online at http://carnegieendowment.org/publications/index.cfm?fa=view&id=23320&pro...

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