Parliamentary elections for the 65 member Kuwait’s National Assembly (Majlis al-Umma) are set for this Saturday. Over 410 candidates are contesting the 50 seats elected by popular vote in the oldest and most powerful legislature in the Arab Gulf states.
There are a number of reasons why these elections are of interest to Australia. If the election does not create a more settled political environment, popular unrest will further destabilise this tightly controlled dynastic emirate, and erode confidence in any form of democratic process throughout the region.
Kuwait, like many other Middle Eastern countries, is passing through an unprecedented period of instability, often known as the Arab Spring. This instability has taken the form of violent revolution in Egypt and Tunisia and civil war in Libya and Syria. In Kuwait, it has manifested in social unrest, mass demonstrations and a succession of parliamentary elections.
While the rule of the hereditary royal family has not been directly challenged in Kuwait, the Arab Spring has led Kuwaitis to demand a greater share of power and more transparency and accountability from the Emir who controls the state’s finances and budget. Frustration over these issues, which are beyond the reach of parliament, has in recent times led to widespread public disobedience or violence.
There is some suggestion that the election turnout may be low. Campaigning and voting is also taking place during the holy month of Ramadan when the people are usually preoccupied with spiritual obligations and related social activities and duties. As a result, the opportunity of candidates to attract voters through political rallies will be limited.
Given the absence of political parties in Kuwait it is difficult to predict the outcome of the election, but there appears to be a lessening of intensity among dissidents and strengthening support for Emir loyalists. It is likely that the new parliament will be younger with more Shi'ites and women among those elected.
Kuwait is unusual among Arab states in the Middle East in that parliamentary elections have been held since its constitution was promulgated in 1962. Women were permitted to vote in 2005 and in 2009 four women were elected to the National Assembly.
However, the struggle toward democracy has been slow. In the past six years, Kuwait has held six elections (an average of one a year). All the governments elected have been cut short either by decree of the Emir, Sabah Al-Ahmad Al-Jaber Al-Sabah, or the state’s Constitutional Court. The Al-Sabah dynasty has ruled Kuwait since independence in 1961, and resumed power on their return after fleeing an attack by Iraq in 1990-91.
The planned election is coming as a result of the developments that began with the dissolution of parliament by the decree of the Emir in December 2011. This came after opposition-led protestors forced their way into parliament and demanded the prime minister step down, forcing him to resign.
Elections were held in February 2012, but Kuwaiti activists — young and old, women and men, secular and Islamists — were far from placated. There are no legalised opposition political parties as we understand them - political parties are not permitted in Kuwait - but there was widespread belief that corruption was rife among elected deputies and government officials. Those protesting included stateless Arabs working in Kuwait who demanded citizenship, work and other benefits available to Kuwaiti citizens.
New elections were held ten months later in December 2012. However, six weeks prior to those elections, the Emir introduced changes to the electoral laws which caused considerable upset. Prior to that time, Kuwaitis could cast four votes for candidates in their (unclearly demarcated) electoral districts, which often resulted in more than one representative for an electorate. The Emir, without any consultation with the public, abolished the four vote rule, essentially introducing “one person, one vote”. The change was widely seen as a way of the royal family manipulating and controlling the election process.
The result was that many conservatives and tribal people who opposed the new electoral law boycotted the December 2012 election which saw a 30-40% vote turnout, the lowest since the first election held in 1963. Three women were elected, as were an increased number of Shi’ites in the predominantly Sunni population.
Opposition spokesmen challenged the electoral law in the Constitutional Court, the country’s highest court and final arbiter in such matters. In mid-June 2013 the court upheld the law, but annulled the results of the December 2012 elections. They instructed the Emir to dissolve the parliament and call for new elections — the upcoming election was then scheduled for July 27 by the Kuwaiti Ministerial Council, members of which are chosen by the prime minister who is chosen by the Emir.
It is hoped that the elections will lessen political tensions and produce a much-needed cooperative and stable political environment in Kuwait. The popular unrest, opposition factional turmoil and political instability that have characterised the past few years have significantly unsettled the state. This uncertainty has curtailed the advancement of economic reforms, and the development of desirable social and political infrastructures.