Kuwait’s long-running political crisis is entering a period of intensifying volatility as the focal point of opposition activity shifts from the parliamentary chamber into the street. Political gridlock looks set to continue in spite of the election of a pro-government parliament on 1 December.
The freshly-elected National Assembly convenes on 16 December. The opposition boycott and low turnout mean that the new government will lack popular or political legitimacy. Pledges by opposition leaders to bring down the Assembly mean it is not expected to last longer than six months; moreover, the issue of royal succession may also come to the surface, leading to further uncertainty and instability within the Gulf emirate. The lack of opposition representation in the new parliament also increases the likelihood that the Assembly will try to move ahead with implementing much-delayed measures such as the Four-Year Development Plan.
For the first time in its fifty-year parliamentary history, two elections to the National Assembly were held in the same year. The 1 December vote followed an opposition landslide victory in the 2 February election, when predominantly tribal and Islamist candidates won thirty-four out of fifty seats in an election that was controversially annulled by the Constitutional Court in June.
The December poll produced a very different outcome after opposition groups announced they would boycott the election in protest against an Emiri decree that reduced the number of votes per person from four to one. A pro-government parliament was duly elected on a record-low turnout of thirty-nine percent, featuring thirty new faces among the fifty MPs. Aside from representing a new political class in Parliament, the electoral result redrew, perhaps temporarily, the political landscape of Kuwait, as Shi’ites won an unprecedented seventeen seats (up from nine in the previous assembly), while the three largest and most powerful tribes in Kuwait—the Mutair, Awazem, and Ajmi—saw their representation fall from seventeen to just one seat as a result of the opposition boycott.
The latest election has left Kuwait as polarized as never before. Emir Sheikh Sabah Al-Ahmed Al-Sabah has presided over five elections and ten governments in the nearly seven years since taking power in January 2006, and almost ten years have passed since a parliament completed its full four-year term.
Prolonged political stalemate has inhibited economic performance and undermined international investor confidence, leaving Kuwait lagging far behind its dynamic regional rivals in Qatar, the United Arab Emirates, and Saudi Arabia. Chronic under-investment in the hydrocarbons sector and in infrastructure has impacted flagship economic projects such as the plan to raise Kuwait’s oil output from three to four million barrels per day by 2020, and the ambitious Vision 2035 program for economic diversification.
However, even as the new MPs welcomed the formation of the new government on 12 December and vowed to work with it to push forward the development plans, recent events indicate that the deadlock is moving into a dangerously unstable new phase. As the opposition has withdrawn from the political arena, the number and size of public demonstrations has increased substantially.
Furthermore, the opposition shows signs of splintering, as running skirmishes continue between groups of youth and the security services in the tribal heartlands of Kuwait City’s outlying suburbs. Such spontaneous and increasingly violent developments may easily escalate into open confrontation or accelerate the radicalization of elements of the opposition at the expense of its more moderate members.
It is not just the opposition, an often-uneasy coalition of diverse political societies and youth movements, that may be losing control. The new cabinet announced by the Emir included the surprising recall of Mustafa Al-Shamali as finance minister, a post he resigned from in May following an interpellation by the opposition-dominated National Assembly. While allegations from MPs of political corruption and mismanagement remain to be substantiated, Al-Shamali’s return will certainly antagonize the opposition. The move also indicates that the government is in no mood for compromise or confidence-boosting measures that might craft a consensual way forward for Kuwait.
The parliament–cabinet standoff is reflected in the ongoing power struggles between leading political figures, most notably between former Prime Minister Nasser Al-Mohammed Al-Sabah and former Deputy Prime Minister Ahmed Al-Fahd. This rivalry may get out of hand as each wields a powerful coalition of, respectively, National Assembly MPs and hardcore opposition ex-parliamentarians.
The elephant in the room is the eventual successor to the 83-year old Emir, as the choice of any new crown prince following the current incumbent’s accession to the throne will need to receive Parliamentary ratification; the jockeying for position among the most ambitious of ruling family members has already begun.