Kuwait has more experience with elections than any other country in the Gulf and more than most countries in the Middle East and North Africa.  Its tiny population of eligible voters (currently around 400,000) has been going to the polls since 1975, and the number of crises involving the ruling al-Sabah family and the 50 elected members of the Kuwaiti parliament easily equals the number of elections.  Despite an up-tic in public demonstrations in Kuwait, the notion that the Arab spring suddenly found its way to Kuwait this year or last does not withstand the most casual analysis; Kuwait’s continuing political crisis has various uniquely Kuwaiti characteristics.  Here are a few things to watch for in the aftermath of the December 1 elections.

The Boycott: Not for the first time, Islamist and liberal opposition movements are planning to boycott the elections.  Most observers believe the boycott will be considered successful if less than 50 percent of voters appear at the polls. In the 2008, 2009, and February 2012 elections, about 60 percent of eligible voters turned out.  But success will be difficult to define, and both sides are likely to declare victory on December 2 regardless of the outcome.   Despite the boycott, a full slate of candidates has signed up to run, many of whom see an opportunity to replace old guard candidates boycotting the polls.   Shia candidates (30 percent of Kuwaitis are Shia) see an opportunity as well.  Election of a higher number of Shia than usual could fuel sectarianism that has creeped out into the open recently in Kuwait.   If the number of voters dips below fifty percent, some in the opposition will claim the elections are illegitimate, although there is no credible claim that they are illegal.

Reasons for the Boycott:  The opposition objects to a unilateral move by the Emir to change the voting system to a “one man, one vote” system, doing away with the four votes that each person can cast now.  It is perceived in Kuwait, though the evidence is not clear, that tribal and Islamist groups benefited from the four vote system because they were able to enforce voting discipline to elect a slate, rather than dividing the vote among a larger group of candidates.   The new system is perceived to  favor the less organized and more liberal traditional Kuwaiti business families, but they are also boycotting on the grounds that the Emir does not (or should not) have the authority to mandate such changes.   This is not the first time liberals and Islamists have teamed up against the al-Sabah leadership, but it is an uncomfortable alliance and will fracture. 

No Real Winners:  Regardless of the outcome of the December 1 elections, there will be no outright winner.  Politics in Kuwait, as might be expected in a small super-rich state, has primarily occupied itself with making sure that wealth gets spread around.  Harold Laswell’s classic definition of politics as “who gets what, when and how” applies exquisitely to Kuwait.  The traditional tools of politics in Kuwait revolve around patronage (government jobs for all), an elaborate system of subsidies, an archaic and corrupt government procurement system that has produced an infrastructure worthy of a lower middle income country, a business sector that grew rich on agency arrangements and an oil sector that badly needs modernization and investment.  Most political groupings in Kuwait share an interest in maintaining this system and are likely focus their efforts on getting a bigger piece of the pie for their constituents. 

Whither Youth?  While it is too early to judge the significance of the youth movement that has emerged in the last two years in Kuwait, many observers believe the dynamic and tech-savvy Kuwaiti youth activists have become the new political agenda-setters, with parliament members responding to them rather than leading them, and the al-Sabah family at a loss in responding to youth discontent. However, the groups have not produced clear leaders (their mobilizers are often operating on anonymous Twitter feeds) and their discontent has not developed into a coherent program.  But they are not going away and it will be interesting to see how they react should, for example, the new parliament be elected by a small electorate and be viewed as subservient to the Emir’s interests.

The GCC Context: Compared with virtually all of its Gulf neighbors, Kuwait is stagnant.  While once it was considered a progressive and modern pioneer in the Gulf, Kuwait’s GCC allies now look on in horror.  Emiratis see the dark hand of the Muslim Brotherhood at work, failing to recognize that the MB’s operation in Kuwait (the Islamic Constitutional Movement) has long been pretty much part of the establishment and may be in the process of being outflanked by Salafis.  The Kuwaiti Prime Minister recently publicly rejected the notion of outsiders having influence over the elections, specifically dismissing the idea that Qatar and outside elements of the Muslim Brotherhood were playing a role in the elections.  The continuing challenges to the al-Sabah family cause angst among other GCC ruling families, especially viewed in the context of the much stronger challenges to the al-Khalifah family in Bahrain.      

US Interests:   Foreign policy issues have been completely absent from recent Kuwaiti elections.  The US military presence on Kuwaiti territory does not create the sort of political problems in Kuwait as it did in Saudi Arabia.  Kuwait has not forgotten the Iraqi invasion and learned the lesson that a small rich state needs numerous and powerful friends to survive. 

Bottom Line:  The December 1 elections will nurture existing Kuwaiti discontent and precipitate other mini-crises, but they do not portend a significant new development in the country’s political culture nor do they reflect newfound Kuwaiti participation in Arab liberalization movements of the last two years.    The elections are another chapter in a long history of tension among political actors, with the added overlay of youth mobilization.  The al-Sabah family will maintain its executive role, but it will continue to be buffeted about by those who want a greater share of the wealth of the country as well as those who wish to see a system that better reflects Kuwait’s progressive traditions. 

Richard LeBaron is a Visiting Senior Fellow at the Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East of the Atlantic Council and served as US Ambassador to Kuwait from 2004 to 2007.  

Related Experts: Richard LeBaron