On December 1 Kuwait held its second parliamentary election in ten months following the court-imposed dissolution of a strongly oppositional parliament last June.  Instead of the usual selection among Kuwait’s liberal nationalist, Islamist, tribal populist, and independent candidates, the choice this time was more stark:  vote or boycott?   In the months since October, when Kuwait’s Emir Sabah al-Ahmed issued an emergency decree altering the country’s electoral system, Kuwait’s fractious political movements have united in opposition.  They held protest marches attended by tens of thousands in an effort to pressure the Emir to rescind the edict, and, failing at that, organized boycott committees in an attempt to deprive the new parliament of its legitimacy. 

With the votes counted, a more complex story has emerged.  Kuwait’s divided public can be read in the uneven turnout across constituencies and in the changes this brings to the new parliament.  The boycott affected voter turnout (officially pegged at 40 percent of eligible voters), virtually eliminated the once powerful Sunni Islamist presence in the National Assembly, and both lowered and altered the composition of tribal representation.  In contrast, the number of Shia members of parliament more than doubled, reaching an historic high.  Rather than resolving Kuwait’s political crisis, then, these elections have magnified sociopolitical and sectarian cleavages making them even more difficult to traverse.  The escalating social tensions may prove difficult to contain within a Gulf region primed to heighten Islamist fears and to accentuate sectarian rivalry.

The proximate cause for the boycott was the election law, which changes the number of ballots cast from four candidates to one.  While the emir contended the law was necessary to return stability, the opposition movements perceived the move as hindering their ability to build coalitions and thus to reconstitute the dominant position they held in the previous parliament.  Many decree opponents were offended by the mode of its issuance as much as its content, seeing in the emir’s use of emergency powers precisely the executive fiat the opposition camp is seeking to curb.  In this sense, the boycott is seen as the latest iteration of the longstanding struggle to impose democratic accountability on the ruling al-Sabah family.

The pro-vote camp is loosely united by a distrust of the opposition coalition, as well as a rejection of its tactics.  The opposition’s liberal use of protest gatherings and marches has escalated tensions in a political system already beset by discord and gridlock.  Many voters were persuaded by the government’s argument that these actions as well as the uncooperative stance of the parliamentary opposition were obstructing Kuwait’s development and hastening its relative decline within the Gulf region.  Others feared the opposition’s drive for parliamentary discretion over the composition of the cabinet, currently controlled by the ruling al-Sabah, and what that would mean in terms of Islamist ascension and enhanced tribal influence.

Winners and Losers

The metric for victory in this political confrontation was voter turnout.  The opposition had already overcome the first hurdle of earning the pledges of former Islamist, liberal, and tribal populist members of parliament (MPs) to decline to run for office.  The absence of thirty-eight of the fifty members of the previous parliament from the candidate lists, as well as that of many other former MPs, guaranteed new faces in the legislature.  The 40 percent turnout was the lowest in Kuwait’s history, reflecting the substantial impact of the boycott on the election.  Yet even more striking was the impact of the boycott on the sociopolitical composition of the new parliament.  More than half of those elected are new to the Assembly, and many are new to politics. 

Tribal and Islamist representation were the most affected by the boycott, reflecting the much lower turnout in Kuwait’s conservative outer districts.  With the Muslim Brotherhood’s Islamic Constitutional Movement and a portion of the Salafi trend boycotting, along with the tribes which provide the bulk of the parliament’s independent Islamists, Islamist representation fell dramatically to five MPs from more than twenty in the last parliament.  The fall in tribal representation was equally dramatic, and the composition of tribal representation also changed.  With three of Kuwait’s largest tribes—the Awazem, the Mutair, and the Ajman—honoring the boycott, an opening was left for smaller tribes that normally cannot overcome the coalition voting of the larger tribes.  Of the fourteen new tribal MPs, then, only one came from the aforementioned triumvirate that represents over 400,000 Kuwaitis.

Kuwait’s Shia took full advantage of the space opened by the boycott.  For the first time, the National Islamic Alliance ran candidates in all five constituencies—and won.  In Kuwait’s urban districts Shia mobilization, and perhaps some Sunni turnout to counter it, blunted the impact of the boycott and pushed participation to nearly 50 percent.  This produced the most dramatic outcome of the election:  the success of seventeen Shia candidates, more than doubling their representation in the last parliament.  The boycott elections effectively amplified the already clear social and sectarian dividing lines between the pro-government and opposition camps.  This consolidation of identity politics complicates the agendas of both sides. 

Now What?

The opposition now must deal with the new reality their boycott bequeathed:  their exclusion from the parliament, the very institution they seek to empower and their best instrument for imposing accountability on the ruling family.  Unless their legal campaign to have the electoral decree and thus the new parliament declared unconstitutional in the courts is successful, the opposition will persist in taking their case for reform to the streets.  Former opposition MPs, especially those more cautious about confrontational tactics, are likely to find it even more difficult to control the agenda and tactics that are increasingly set by the youth movements.  Some of these groups are already pushing for a new constitution that would explicitly call for an elected prime minister and would end the political “games” of the past few years.

However, the opposition may find pressing programmatic demands more difficult without the benefit of a parliamentary foothold.   Much of the opposition’s effectiveness came from the leveraging of street protests to strengthen the opposition demands in parliament.  Without a parliamentary presence, street protests may be seen as wholly obstructionist and detrimental to stability.  It will also be difficult to maintain momentum along with the discipline needed to keep the protests peaceful and to escape public disapproval.  The sporadic late night protests that took place in several residential neighborhoods following the election were not a good sign.

Identity politics will likewise complicate the efforts to maintain a broad opposition coalition.  As one astute Kuwaiti observer noted, the attempt by youth to leverage discontented tribes for democratic change holds certain dangers.  Many of Kuwait’s urban constituents are dismissive of tribal motives and fear their empowerment.  The full reliance on the street will only exacerbate those fears.

Seeing this dilemma, the al-Sabah-led government may be sanguine about its chances of coming out on top.  With what is expected to be a strongly pro-government National Assembly, the ruling family may have temporarily escaped the escalating political pressure from within the parliament without the international censure that would have come from an unconstitutional dissolution.  Their strategy now is to use the more compliant parliament and sizable budget surpluses to push through ambitious projects that will deliver on the promise of national development.  But this test of governance may be a severe one for a divided ruling family and a government that has consistently failed to deliver on its promises.  And, if they fail now, they will no longer have the cover of an obstructionist parliament. 

Identity politics will likewise complicate their agenda due to the composition of their parliamentary backers.  The loss of once allies amongst Islamic movements and the larger tribes has left the al-Sabah more dependent on the loyalty of the Shia parliamentary delegations.  Their extraordinary showing in these elections may very well embolden the Shia delegations to make demands that could antagonize some unaccustomed to their influence. 

Kuwaiti royals have easily won pledges of solidarity from GCC allies such as the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia.  But these conservative GCC states are prone to read any Shia empowerment in alarmist terms.  An initial salvo was fired by the Bahraini media – which no longer bothers to tone down its sectarian discourse and fears – in a sensationalistic front page article accusing a number of Kuwait’s newly minted Shia MPs of having terrorist associations.   

All of Kuwait’s political actors would do well to avoid the trap of identity politics and to focus on governing agendas and political projects that can garner broad support.  While the al-Sabah-led government may have traded an opposition parliament for a more supportive one, it has not come close to quelling the dissatisfaction of many of its citizens.  It is hard to hold optimism for a government whose most implacable detractors appear to be the country’s idealistic youth, who have lost faith in the current system to deliver on their ambitions. 

Kristin Smith Diwan is Assistant Professor of Comparative and Regional Studies at the American University School of International Service.