Within the GCC, Kuwait was—and remains—many steps ahead of several of the bloc’s other member states in development, education, and other critical sectors. One of these areas has also traditionally been politics—Kuwait’s National Assembly is the most active and powerful parliament in the Gulf and probably the Arab world—but the attraction has waned as the Kuwaiti legislature has sunk deeper into infighting and dysfunction among the political class. The most recent round of parliamentary elections in Kuwait, held on June 6th, do not promise substantial changes to the country’s political unrest. The election had one of the lowest numbers of candidates in Kuwaiti election history, and the general atmosphere among Kuwaitis was apathy and non-interest in taking part. Critically, these sentiments are linked to diminishing hopes of serious reform that would end the country’s longtime gridlock. While they were unlikely to have had a major impact on the turnout, calls for boycotting the elections were circulating in the days before the election day on social media, and candidates’ campaign centers had a visibly lower presence of voters than previous elections.
The elections themselves were largely uneventful. Although a good number of new candidates won seats, voter turnout was barely over 50 percent, hinting at the degree of fatalism infecting Kuwait’s political institutions. Due to Kuwait’s archaic and unpopular voting system, in which each voter has one vote and the top ten candidates from each of the five districts are elected, the first-place winners had in some constituencies 60 percent more votes than the tenth-place winners. Perhaps worst of all, of the fifty new MPs, only one was a woman—making ignorance of women’s issues in the National Assembly a foregone conclusion in the upcoming term.
United in Frustration
There are many reasons for Kuwaitis’ frustration at the electoral process. A major complaint has been the recurring cycle of election and dissolution of parliament that has become endemic to the Kuwaiti political system in the last twenty years. The second reason is the observation that a real change to end the political gridlock or governmental work is nearly non-existent. Kuwaitis right now are blaming both the executive and legislative branches for the stalemate; both are accused of nepotism, lack of professionalism, and using government positions for individual gain rather than serving the public interest.
While a minority of Kuwaitis continue to believe that there is hope for reform, many assume this hope is based on optimism rather than facts. In fact, Kuwait’s political unrest has become chronic because the focus has been on finding temporary day-to-day solutions rather than resolving the root cause of the dysfunction. For this reason, gridlock becomes inevitable, even across different parliaments and different governments. If the situation continues in the coming years, distrust in the government’s ability to run Kuwaiti institutions will only increase, and all government work will continue to be delayed.
In addition to political gridlock—or, perhaps, as a contributing factor to it—Kuwait has a serious problem of selecting the right individuals in government positions, further adding to societal frustration. The collective apathy among Kuwaitis today is primarily a result of institutional flaws and the inability to resolve the country’s chronic and accumulated problems. While many in Kuwait’s government and civil society have offered hypothetical solutions for the country’s problems, these ideas have not translated to concrete proposals by either the executive branch or the legislature. Finally, as in other nations, an “addiction to power” may be the reason for the inability of legislators to present solutions for the country’s gridlock; most of them, after all, are primarily focused on election and re-election rather than resolving the country’s multifaceted problems.
The suggested solution that has been most popular among Kuwaitis has been liberalizing the country’s restrictions on political organizations, allowing for the creation of parliamentarian blocks or political parties that allow factions within the assembly to present reform or development agendas as a group. Kuwaitis can then hold the party accountable if it fails to implement the actions it promises, or re-elect it into power once more if it succeeds. While allowing the organization of parties will not be a panacea for Kuwait’s problems, it would play a role in curbing the outsized influence of individual lawmakers attempting to draw as much attention to themselves as possible, creating an environment in which public service is prioritized over grandstanding. Other institutions of a well-functioning democracy, such as the fostering of a free and active media environment, can also play a major role in keeping the government honest and accountable.
Unfortunately, there are several platforms in the country that have come together for the wrong reasons. Although formal political parties are banned, Islamist blocs such as Hadas have formed within the parliament, representing both Sunni and Shi’a. These blocs are mainly driven by religious identities rather than a clear vision for Kuwait’s future. The Islamist blocs influence individuals through temptation or intimidation, making them more influential and capable of passing laws that drain the country’s budget and society. Kuwait needs political blocs that appeal to people of differing religious, tribal, and cultural backgrounds; they should not be linked to an “identity,” but rather to an ideology through which a political agenda and development plans for the country can be formed. Through this system, Kuwaitis can hold officials accountable for their work rather than voting for them based on their religious or tribal background. This will help constituents elect their representatives based on merit, eliminating a major hurdle to good governance in Kuwaiti politics today.
Looking objectively into the political dilemma in Kuwait, one cannot blame all of the system’s shortcomings on poorly-performing officials. Society is part of the problem. Most of the officials in the National Assembly have no intentionally malign motives, but are forced to walk an impossible tightrope between performing public service and appeasing their direct electoral groups. Fortunately, this problem can be resolved in large part by providing detailed information on Kuwaiti attitudes to officials and candidates, allowing them to better understand the wishes of the public. The lack of scientific research and public opinion polls has left officials and voters subject to rumors and assumptions, and in many cases has led different groups and individuals to support or oppose legislation based on the perceptions of their in-group—a trend that has led to further polarization in Kuwait and an inability to move away from a self-serving or group-serving agenda in public work.
It is also the responsibility of the state to regulate the flow of information during election times to control what constituents and candidates are circulating on social media. For instance, it is illegal in many other countries, including the United States, to intentionally circulate false information about elections, such as lying about the election date or the correct method of voting on social media. Kuwait, however, has virtually no oversight on political information and lacks a government body that oversees this. Even information which is not necessarily fraudulent can often be misleading; the nature of social media means that the loudest, angriest voices are more likely to be heard. Unfortunately, many officials are impacted by social media posts; it is easy to believe that social media reflects society’s wishes, given the lack of institutions (polls, domestic media) that could prove otherwise. Kuwait’s “silent majority” is consistently ignored, and as a result, wrongdoings abound in regulations and policies that affect education, healthcare, development, and in many cases, Kuwait’s regional image.
Finally, the results of Kuwait’s most recent elections emphasize the country’s dire need for electoral reforms. Kuwait’s National Assembly is ostensibly a democratic body intended to represent the country’s population, but this idea is belied by the fact that Kuwait’s women—half of the population—are represented by one MP out of 50, or 2% of the total. A women’s quota would go a long way toward ensuring greater female representation, and other Arab parliaments already have similar measures. Other potentially useful reforms include an overhaul of the voting system—away from the widely hated single non-transferable vote (SNTV) and toward a system in which multiple votes can be cast for multiple candidates—and a broader rethinking of the country’s electoral districts.
Why This Matters
Kuwait’s parliamentary dysfunction has real-world consequences. Like many GCC states, Kuwait is a major oil producer and for decades has relied on oil revenues for its government budget. While it is known that the world is slowly abandoning oil, placing Kuwait’s long-term economic viability in doubt, the country is lagging in presenting diversification plans to move away from an oil-based economy. Even if oil prices are good now, this is only a temporary situation as a result of international factors like the war in Ukraine and recent OPEC+ agreements between OPEC and Russia. This is not sustainable, and prices will likely decline eventually to their pre-COVID levels. In order to build a successful diversification plan and overhaul the country’s economy, Kuwaitis need government institutions and branches working harmoniously.
Soon, the public sector will fall behind in absorbing the high number of graduates who prefer public employment. When this happens, the government and parliament will need to work together to plan for expanding the private sector and increasing its capacity to bridge the unemployment gap in the country. Unemployment, particularly youth unemployment, and a weak private sector will remain a major challenge for both legislative and executive branches, leading to further social and economic problems within Kuwait if it is not addressed.
The upshot of all of this is that Kuwait’s “social contract”—the unwritten agreement between the people and their rulers—is increasingly under strain. Problems continue to accumulate, and society has yet to see from the National Assembly a serious attempt or plan to resolve a problem apparent across all sectors. The current situation is unsustainable, and if Kuwait continues on this path, it will further escalate political unrest and increase polarization. If reforms are not made, no number of new elections can solve this.
Fortunately, the current elections have introduced to the legislative branch many new young ambitious MPs who are enthusiastic about their work and are intent on providing solutions to the country’s multifaceted problems. While they have the number and support of a good segment of society, the fundamental risk of clashes between different blocs remains. Kuwaiti MPs face real challenges; they must deal with out-of-control government spending, global inflation, the uncoupling of the Kuwaiti economy from oil and the creation of green energy initiatives, among other priorities. These problems will inevitably go unsolved if lawmakers are bogged down with intra-parliamentary rivalries or a new dissolution. Above all, lawmakers must remember that winning an election, and receiving the social status and personal fulfillment that comes with it, is not the goal. Instead, lawmakers should seek to achieve the common good and serve their society—a dream that has yet to come to fruition in Kuwait.
The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of Gulf International Forum.