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A unique case study: Kuwait's upcoming parliamentary election

Kuwait's new round of elections adds a different dimension to the politics of the Arab world.

Last Modified: 15 Jul 2013 10:55
Larbi Sadiki

Dr Larbi Sadiki is a Senior Lecturer in Middle East Politics at the University of Exeter, and author of Arab Democratization: Elections without Democracy (Oxford University Press, 2009) and The Search for Arab Democracy: Discourses and Counter-Discourses (Columbia University Press, 2004).
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"Power redistribution via elections alone seems today to present limitations," writes Larbi Sadiki [Reuters]

After Kuwait's constitutional court dissolved parliament in mid-June, Kuwaitis will be participating in another parliamentary election on July 27. It is their second election in eight months. The question is whether this election will be sufficient to fix a more serious problem of systemic decay and bolder demands for a restless and confident citizenry who need substantive representation and accountability.

In one month, the Middle East has experienced three unique routes: a legitimate election in Iran, a coup following riots in Egypt, and voluntary abdication in Qatar - the first of its kind in the Gulf. Kuwait's election adds a fourth dynamic to the region's political fermentation.

Elections without democracy?

By any standards, Kuwait is heads and shoulders above the Gulf and North African states. It inaugurated elections and constitutions nearly fifty years ago, and its parliament has been, relative to the Arab region, robust in questioning authority and no other ruling house is more scrutinised than Kuwait's.

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This partly explains why Kuwait's parliament was subjected to more instances of dissolution than any other in the Arab region. One of the very few developments to take place in Kuwaiti politics, apart from Al-Sabah's securing rule within a single royal house, has been the alternation between the Emir and the Constitutional Court in the parliament's disintegration. In December 2011, Emir Sabah Al-Ahmad Al-Jaber Al-Sabah disbanded the National Assembly after opposition-led protesters forced their way into parliament and demanded the prime minister step down .

To an extent, this tension has not been all negative. Democratisation requires tension and so do publics as they grow bold in demanding a greater share of power, more transparency from royalty, and accountability from royal houses whose budgetary prerogatives and finances remain outside the remit of inquisitive parliaments.

The Arab world can learn both from Kuwait's parliamentary know-how as well as from the atrophy of its system. Questioning royal authority is still a red line not covered by electoral democracy and the resulting impasse in Kuwait sums up the fragile legal foundations of most Arab states - pre and post-Arab spring.

Note how the Arab decaying system has been screaming for renewal. A perfunctory survey of current happenings confirm both the sclerosis and crisis of legitimacy - in varying degrees - almost invariably across the vast Arab Middle East geography. In Bahrain, Egypt, Kuwait, Lebanon, Libya, Sudan, Syria, and Yemen illustrate the point. Bar Sudan and Syria, elections have proven their limitations. On issues where people cannot use the ballot box may lead them to use violence or public disobedience in order to resolve. This is one trend that appears to be firming up in the Arab region.

Luckily for Kuwait, a degree of legal oversight seems to re-open opportunities for re-negotiation via the ballot. The mid-June court decision for new polls must be understood within this context. Nonetheless, Kuwait is in a deeper crisis that electioneering alone will not resolve. Kuwaitis boast a high level of political awareness, a tradition of print media honed in critical political analysis, civic platforms in the form of diwaniyyahs - male and female forums for open discussion of politics - and a fifty-year long practice of voting.

To an extent, publics have evolved politically but systemic response to accommodate this qualitative change in political behaviour and awareness has been one of resistance. This is the kind of flash-point that produced revolutions in Egypt and Tunisia, and other Arab publics wished to replicate. Kuwait has some time to attend to this systemic crisis - within and via existing civic, legal, constitutional and political resources that speak to local specificity. No 'size fits all' solution exists on how a country redresses democratic deficiency and redistributes power.

Power redistribution via elections alone seems today to present limitations - even in Arab Spring states.

Beyond elections 

The problem with electoral democracy in many Arab states is that no matter who loses and wins, and who participates and boycotts elections, confining the political game to institutional arenas will prove to be challenging. Even within Arab Spring states such as Egypt, Libya and Tunisia, institutional opposition deriving from elections pales in comparison to societal opposition.

Lack of confidence in any political system may prove beyond repair by elections alone. Partly, this applies to Arab polities other than Kuwait: Many Libyans are resorting to bullets as in Benghazi; in Egypt the "rebel" campaign to force President Morsi out is proceeding; in Tunisia interim institutional arrangements  in place as a result of the 2011 elections have not prevented discord.

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So questions about the utility of elections as the Kuwaiti case illustrates are legitimate and Arab civil societies and polities must address.

Kuwait's July 27 vote will be the sixth in six years - since 2006: an average of one election per year!. This has, inevitably, lowered the estimation of elections in the minds of many citizens, including neighbouring Qatar where the first elections for the country's Constitutional Council are planned, even though no date has yet been fixed for parliamentary polls. The mass protests in Kuwait since 2011 have not helped. Many citizens associate elections with stability and not with non-conventional politics such as civil disobedience - i.e. sources of instability.

By ordering new elections, Kuwait has provided half-a-solution. With the controversial change to the electoral law remaining intact, the reason that sparked protests and a standoff between state and society, the problem may not completely disappear as many in the opposition still contest this law.

The controversial law, introduced by the emirsix weeks before the December 2012 elections and without reference to the public, meant Kuwaiti citizens could no longer cast four votes. Essentially, this introduces the principle of "one vote, one person" in a country where electoral districts are not neatly demarcated and may have more than one member of parliament. The unilateral measures are viewed as 'gerrymandering', allowing the government to manipulate election outcomes.

Democracy includes more than elections

Nowhere is this more evident than Kuwait. None of the previously elected six National Assemblies completed more than a quarter of the four-year-term expected of Kuwaiti legislatures.

The December 2012 elections suffered from a kind of "double jeopardy": a controversial electoral law and a boycott. The upshot is those who boycotted the system have effectively been without representation for eight months.

Women won the franchise in 2005 and had to wait till May 2006 to exercise it. Women had to wait until 2009 to win four seats in the National Assembly after having failed the first time they contested elections to win a single seat.

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Corruption is a major issue and cannot be remedied by elections. It features the most important issue dividing society and formal institutions. During the height of the Arab Spring, allegations of corruption against officials and elected deputies came to a head in the country's parliament. Opposition protests, which consist of no legalised political parties, and the public at large, including youth activists, liberal and secular, women and Islamists, forced the resignation in November 2011 of the Prime Minister and his government. The elections of February 2012 did not placate the public, and new elections had to take place ten months later.

There is no guarantee the new election will yield more certainty for either the National Assembly or state-society relations. Boycotts may continue to be deployed by segments of society who reject the electoral law and demand legal checks and balances on the powers of the royal house. The division within the opposition only contributes to the problem. One of the key political actors, the National Democratic Rally, plans to participate after spending eight months on the sidelines following the boycott of the December 2012. Its participation upholds the court decision and weakens opposition.

So far, 418 candidates have signed up - making the election fiercely competitive. Only voter turnout will be the best barometer of public sentiments on the day of the polls.

Hence, sole reliance on elections alone to reduce opposition to tame-able "systemic" and "loyal" voices does not work. This is evident in Kuwait where probably parliament should be expanded to recruit additional voices not caught by the safety net of conventional politics and additional institutions for civic participation and representation should be legalised - namely, labour and trade unions.

Elections are not a panacea

In Kuwait, the frequency of elections perhaps quantifies democracy but limits its quality. In 2012, Kuwait began (February) and ended (December) the year with elections. From the outset, the public, more generally, had doubts about the legality, much less durability, of the parliament resulting for the December polls. Reduced voter turnout - a bit more than 40 per cent according to the government and less than 30 per cent according to independent assessors - partly points to deflated confidence in the system.

Kuwait offers students of Arab democratisation with a unique case study. Civic and electoral know-how, relative to Gulf and Arab states, is impressive. However, rulers can give elections and constitutions with one hand and curtail power-sharing on the other. Legal foundations are vital either in cases where royal privilege applies or when single parties - in non-monarchical systems - concentrate power and not diffuse it.

The new dynamic, perhaps, is that the Arab masses seem to be disinclined to see their countries queue up and wait. 

Larbi Sadiki is a Senior Lecturer in Middle East Politics at the University of Exeter, and author ofArab Democratization: Elections without Democracy (Oxford University Press, 2009) and The Search for Arab Democracy: Discourses and Counter-Discourses (Columbia University Press, 2004).

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The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera's editorial policy.

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