Districts and discord in Kuwaiti politics

Kuwait Parliament

‘Majlis-al-Umma’, Kuwait’s National Assembly building, Kuwait City. Photo Credit: Wikipedia Creative Commons/Leshonai

By Wafa Alsayed, Research Analyst, IISS-Middle East

Last week’s verdict by Kuwait’s highest court, which left existing electoral districts intact, is the latest stage in an ongoing battle between the Kuwaiti government and opposition forces.

For opposition groups, this verdict is a victory. In 2006, the number of electoral districts was reduced from 25 to five, following popular pressure from youth groups and other members of the opposition.  Elections held since the redrawing of districts indicate that the new system favours opposition forces. The previous 25-district system – implemented by the government in 1981 – was regarded as biased against political reform, and too easy for the ruling Al-Sabah family to manipulate.

Both the 2006 redrawing and the latest court ruling were welcomed by opposition groups, but the verdict is unlikely to mark the end of the struggle over Kuwait’s electoral map.

Opposition

Opposition groups in Kuwait are a disparate mix of Islamists (including a branch of the Muslim Brotherhood – Hadas – and Salafi factions), secularists, ‘tribals’ (candidates representing various tribes) and urbanites – and these affiliations often overlap. Opposition demands range from calling for an elected prime minister to simply urging the government to hold new elections and refrain from further interference into electoral district law. The Popular Action Bloc – itself a mix of tribals and urbanites, and considered mostly secular – is the staunchest opposition group, and lobbies for an elected prime minister. Youth groups have also played a large role in demanding reform.

Following protests last year, opposition groups had reason to feel triumphant, with the removal of Prime Minister Nasser Al-Mohammed from office, the dissolution of parliament and the subsequent victory of opposition candidates in the 2012 parliamentary elections. But a constitutional court ruling that nullified the 2012 parliament, and the later government challenge to the 2006 electoral district law – finally resolved by last week’s verdict  –  heightened old tensions between different factions in Kuwait.

District disputes

The 25-district system stacked the odds towards the government for various reasons. The ruling family was accused of manipulating the electoral balance through vote-buying (which was more effective under this system because fewer votes separated winners from losers) and the strategic transfer of voters between electoral districts. Splitting the country into 25 districts made it more difficult for MPs to work collectively, which meant ideological opposition parties struggled to win seats, increasing the number of tribal MPs. Tribal candidates also had close ties to the government, which presided over a large-scale enfranchisement and naturalization of tribesmen in the 1970s and 1980s in order to counterbalance liberal urbanite Kuwaitis in parliament. Tribal candidates employed the tactic of primary elections – nominally illegal – which prevented tribal groups from splitting their votes among different candidates.

The 2006 five-district system created larger districts, with ten MPs representing each one. Voters can vote for four candidates, allowing groups to run candidate lists. This spread, it was thought, would enable well-organised opposition groups like Hadas, which lobbied for the reform, to win more seats. In the event, tribal candidates did very well in the May 2008 elections, especially compared to ideological groups like Hadas – which actually lost half of its seats. But by then, the tribal population had started leaning more towards the opposition, particularly those large and well-organised tribes such as the Mutair and Ajman. Thus, opposition groups, tribal and otherwise, made large gains in parliament.

A further carve-up of districts?

The government’s latest attempt to revise electoral districts to more closely resemble the 25-district system, which culminated in last week’s court ruling, is seen as a way to regain control of parliament. For their part, opposition forces seek to further amend electoral districts in their favour by decreasing the number of districts to just one or two, and calling for a system of proportional representation.

Both sides may still attempt to alter the shape of existing electoral districts: new parliamentary elections will probably take place now for the third time in less than four years, but the government can still issue a new electoral law while parliament is not in session. The opposition may now be emboldened to push for a reduction to one or perhaps two districts, as the recent ruling casts doubt on the constitutionality of the single district system.

What cannot be denied is that the political turmoil in the Arab world has given the Kuwaiti opposition greater confidence to address the historic fault line between Kuwait’s ruling monarchy and democratic principles, particularly in light of rising calls for an elected prime minister and cabinet.  In this political climate, the government of Kuwait may find it difficult to get its way.  The challenge for Kuwait now is whether it is able to attain stable government while accommodating an increasingly ambitious opposition.


2 Comments on “Districts and discord in Kuwaiti politics”

  1. [...] it has seen increasingly frequent protests and unprecedented violence since the suspension of the tribal- and Islamist-led parliament in summer 2012 and an emergency decree in October changing the electoral law. The latter prompted [...]

  2. [...] has seen increasingly frequent protests and unprecedented violence since the suspension of the tribal- and Islamist-led parliament in summer 2012 and an emergency decree in October changing the electoral law. The latter prompted [...]

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