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Kuwait Parliamentary Elections: Rethinking the Meaning of “Opposition”

As Kuwaitis prepare to go to the polls on June 6th for the country’s second parliamentary elections in nine months, there is a palpable atmosphere of general political malaise and frustration. When I was in Kuwait in May, I heard many Kuwaitis describe the situation since March—when the parliament elected in September 2022 was summarily dissolved and the assembly elected in 2020 reinstated after a surprise decision by the Constitutional Court—as a “carnival,” quoting Kuwaiti academic Abdullah al-Nafisi who famously used this phrase to describe Kuwaiti domestic politics. Disillusionment with the political system, and particularly with the limits of parliamentary power, is hardly new to Kuwait, but seems to have increased in recent months after it became clear that the 2022 parliament would not be able to make progress towards meaningful legislation.

The Impasse

The situation in Kuwait today somewhat resembles events that took place over a decade ago. In 2012, the Constitutional Court, as it did earlier this year, declared the parliament elected in February void on the grounds that its election had been unconstitutional and ordered it to be replaced with the previously elected body. In the same year,  the then-Emir Shaykh Sabah al-Ahmed al-Jaber al-Sabah replaced the then-current electoral system, in which each citizen could vote for four different candidates, with a single nontransferable vote (SNTV)—a rule change that the opposition claimed was intended to split its support, leading it to boycott parliamentary elections altogether between 2012 and 2016. This year, while the electoral rules have not been changed and no opposition-wide boycott has been called, many Kuwaitis appear unenthusiastic about voting.

Popular apathy toward democratic politics in Kuwait appears to focus primarily on the continued gridlock between the elected parliament and the appointed cabinet. Since 2012, many Kuwaitis, vaguely described as the “opposition,” have opined that the existing system can be improved. The exact proposals for how to improve it vary, but some include the elimination of the SNTV system, introduction of a political parties law, the introduction of proportional representation, and the potential establishment of a quota for women. In spite of their frustrations with the limits of parliamentary power and the lack of progress towards legislation, Kuwaitis on the whole remain committed to democracy and parliamentary governance, despite (or perhaps because of) authoritarian backsliding elsewhere in the region like Tunisia. However, although they are justifiably proud of hosting the most active and vocal parliament in the Gulf, alienation from the political process has clearly grown in recent years, as evidenced by a significant decrease in the number of candidates compared to the last election (number of candidates has dropped from 376 in 2022 to 207 in 2023). When I asked two former MPs why they had chosen not to run in this election, both argued that there was little to gain from involvement in a body if it could not deliver on the legislation promised to its constituents. This sentiment clearly resonates not only with former MPs, but also with voters: what is the purpose of an elected body if it cannot do what it promises?

Shifting Loyalties

While there are very real concerns about the limits of parliamentary power and frustration among many Kuwaitis, I anticipate this election will yield largely similar results to the polls held in September 2022, which were hailed as a success for the broad-based political opposition. Indeed, 47 of the 50 MPs elected in September (and summarily booted from office in March) will contest their seats once again. There is, however, one significant change: former Speaker of Parliament Marzouq al-Ghanem has announced his intention to run, despite his non-participation in the September 2022 election. Al-Ghanem has been a hugely important political figure in Kuwait since he first became Speaker of Parliament in 2013, a position he held until September 2022. Al-Ghanem is usually described as a member of Kuwait’s merchant elite and voice of the regime in parliament. Recently, however, he publicly challenged Prime Minister Shaykh Ahmed Nawaf al-Ahmed al-Sabah (the eldest son of the emir), blaming him for the country’s political impasse. By contrast, in 2021, al-Ghanem was instrumental in passing legislation delaying the interpellation of the previous prime minister. Such incidents demonstrate that labels such as “loyalist” and “opposition” are fluid in Kuwait. They are also further evidence that, despite the fact that Kuwait houses strong political institutions, individual personalities still matter.

Western press reports about past Kuwaiti elections have sometimes simplistically touted the success of “the opposition,” but it is not always clear what exactly this means on the ground. While it certainly demonstrates dissatisfaction with the existing order and a desire for political and economic reform, Kuwait’s “opposition” MPs are typically unable to effect policy changes on which they tend to base their campaigns; indeed, no legislation is being passed. As Daniel Tavana put it in a recent Gulf International Forum event, “Opposition implies government, and in Kuwait lately, this government has shown little interest in governing.” Sure enough, the Kuwaiti cabinet has not passed legislation, and multiple members skipped several meetings of the last parliament.

The ability of Kuwaiti lawmakers to organize and enact change is further hamstrung by the country’s existing laws against political parties. Although informal blocs of candidates exist—variously affiliated with the government, the opposition, tribal interests, and the Muslim Brotherhood—the informal nature of this arrangement makes it possible for candidates to easily switch their allegiances, further fueling disillusionment among voters. Among 50 MPs, it is commonly asserted that there exist 50 different policy agendas, all of which relate primarily to the interest of the individual candidate rather than to any consistent ideological agenda. Predictably, such an arrangement makes it ever more difficult to pass legislation or to find common ground among MPs on specific points of policy.

In my view, then, Kuwait’s current political impasse is unlikely to change as long as future elections are held under the same regulations as previous ones. Thus, in all likelihood, the pattern of repeated impasses between an ineffective “opposition”-led parliament and a “loyalist” cabinet, repeated dissolutions of parliament, and repeated elections with identical outcomes will continue for the foreseeable future.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of Gulf International Forum.

Issue: Politics & Governance
Country: Kuwait

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Dr. Courtney Freer is a Senior Non-Resident Fellow at Gulf International Forum and Provost’s Postdoctoral Fellow at Emory University. Previously, Dr. Freer was Assistant Professorial Research Fellow at the LSE Middle East Centre. From 2015-2020, Courtney was a Research Officer for the Kuwait Programme at the LSE Middle East Centre. Her work focuses on the domestic politics of the Gulf states, particularly the roles played by Islamism and tribalism. Her book Rentier Islamism: The Influence of the Muslim Brotherhood in Gulf Monarchies, based on her DPhil thesis at the University of Oxford and published by Oxford University Press in 2018, examines the socio-political role played by the Muslim Brotherhood groups in Kuwait, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates. She previously worked at the Brookings Doha Center and the US–Saudi Arabian Business Council. Courtney holds a BA from Princeton University in Near Eastern Studies and an MA in Middle Eastern Studies from the George Washington University.  


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