On November 5, Kuwait’s emir, Sheikh Sabah al-Ahmad Al Sabah, confirmed that he would go ahead with the changes he made in the Kuwait’s electoral law this past October 19, explaining that the measures will “protect national unity.” This amendment to the electoral law ahead of the December 1 parliamentary elections is likely to escalate the political crisis in Kuwait, as opposition groups have, in response, threatened to boycott the elections. The resulting political instability is threatening to strip the country of its history of strong political participation.
The amendment reduces the number of votes each voter can cast to one; a change from the previous electoral law, which allowed each voter in a district to select up to four MPs. Critics claim that the new electoral system will benefit pro-government candidates and will result in a tame parliament that will be unable to stand up to or hold the government accountable. Previous issues over the electoral issue have centered on redrawing of electoral districts: currently Kuwait has five—each with 10 elected MPs. Before 2006, Kuwait had 25 electoral districts, and the government lobbied for 10. The opposition, in turn, wanted 5—arguing that too many districts would pave the way for corruption and vote-buying. More recently, the emir’s decree came after the Constitutional Court rejected a government appeal to redraw the electoral districts.
The pronouncement has caused upheaval among the opposition, which is already at odds with the government (as has been the case for the past few years). Opposition Islamists, liberals, and nationalists have all vowed to boycott the elections and have held at least four rallies that brought tens of thousands of protesters to the streets—one such demonstration was the “March of Dignity” on October 20, the largest political rally in the country’s history, with some estimates counting as many as 150,000 participants.
The protest was met with a strong response from the country’s security forces that fired tear gas and sound bombs to disperse protesters wounding several demonstrators. The opposition is attempting to pressure the emir to withdraw his decree and let the next elected parliament decide on amending the law. The opposition says that a new pro-monarchy parliament is likely to vote in favor of the change—thereby definitively weakening their position.
The Kuwaiti royal family wields enormous power; according to the Kuwaiti constitution, the emir is the head of state and his person is “immune and inviolable.” Parliament has, to some extent, been able to play a role in holding government accountable through its power to “grill” (question) the prime minister and the members of his cabinet. The legislature in Kuwait also has the power—and has occasionally used it—to vote no-confidence against ministers and the prime minister. Analysts argue, however, that Kuwait’s ban on political parties has hurt democratic development, and that to fill the gap the emir has played a role of the arbiter between government and parliament.
For years, the tension between the opposition and the government has grown over the parliament’s limited power and calls for greater government accountability. The emir has dissolved each of the four parliaments that voters elected since 2006. The most recent of these crises began in June, when the Constitutional Court dissolved the Islamist-led parliament elected in February. This past October, the emir dissolved the parliament once more. Opposition forces say there are serious problems that need to be addressed to achieve political stability—including the limited powers of parliament and the growing concerns about corruption.
In August 2011, the local media reported that millions of dollars had been deposited in the bank accounts of several MPs to influence their votes. Opposition-led protesters responded by storming parliament and calling for its dissolution. They also called for the prime minister to step down and in some cases went even further by calling for a constitutional monarchy and an elected government. The magnitude of the scandal—with a number of news reports putting estimates of the amounts spent to buy votes in the hundreds of millions of dollars—triggered public outcry and ultimately led to the resignation of the government and the emir’s decision to dissolve the parliament in December. The following February, the opposition won 34 of the parliament’s 50 seats, with 23 of them going to Islamists.
Liberal critics contend that the Islamist-led parliament has since focused on a religious agenda rather than the issues that enabled the opposition to gain a majority. For instance, the parliament passed a bill imposing the death penalty on blasphemy—later vetoed by the emir—while some MPs called for legislation to monitor public morality.
The opposition’s decision to boycott the elections might further limit their chances of playing a strong role in holding the government accountable. At the same time, a future parliament without the opposition is a warning sign that all is not well in the Kuwaiti version of democracy.
Mariwan R. Hama is a fellow at Human Rights Watch covering Bahrain and Kuwait.