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December 4, 2012

Fabricating a fig leaf of democracy in Kuwait

By Abdus Sattar Ghazali

Parliamentary elections in Kuwait were held on December 1, 2012 amid opposition calls to boycott the ballot that resulted in a low voter turnout and a pro-government National Assembly known as Majlis-e-Umma.

According to figures released by the Kuwaiti National Election Commission, ‘liberals,’ ‘conservatives’ and Shi’ites made gains in the newly elected parliament. Islamic revivalists were routed with only four seats in the 50-seat parliament. Only three women were elected.

In a significant development, Shi’ite candidates secured over a third of seats for the first time, taking seventeen seats in the National Assembly. About 30% population of Kuwait is Shiite and the election result reflected that the Shiite for the first time in Kuwait’s parliamentary history got representation in the National Assembly in proportion to their population. However, Sunni majority accuses Shiite members of supporting the government.

The election was maneuvered to wipe out the fierce opposition by the so-called Sunni Islamic revivalists who got only four seats. In the outgoing assembly they had twenty-three MPs.

Not surprisingly, the opposition groups said their demand for a boycott of Kuwait's parliamentary election has been a success and called the new chamber unconstitutional. Officially the turnout was 43%, but opposition supporters claimed it was only 28%. Previous elections, including one held in February this year, saw a turnout of around 60%.

The Popular Committee for Boycotting the Election said the new body "does not represent the majority of Kuwaiti people and has lost popular and political legitimacy". It said any legislation would be illegal. Political parties are banned and candidates run as individuals.

The elections were held after the Amir of Kuwait, Sheikh Sabah Al Ahmed Al Jaber, dissolved the opposition dominated assembly in October this year after the Constitutional Court annulled the February 2012 elections and reinstated the 2009 dissolved assembly. This was the second dissolution of parliament in less than one year. The Amir dissolved the 2009 house in November 2011 when the opposition tried to grill a ruling family member about the alleged payment of bribes to pro-government MPs.

The drama of dissolution and suspension of the National Assembly looks a permanent feature of Kuwait’s so-called democratic process where the Amir is an absolute ruler with powers to dissolve the elected house. During this scribe’s stay in Kuwait from 1968 to 2000, the National Assembly was suspended or dissolved at least four times.

Kuwait's first National Assembly was elected in 1963, with follow-on elections held in 1967, 1971, and 1975. From 1976 to 1981, the National Assembly was suspended. Following elections in 1981 and 1985, the National Assembly was again dissolved in 1986.  In 1999, the Amir once again dissolved the National Assembly. Again in May 2006  the Emir dissolved the National Assembly.

How the election results were mannered?

It was evident from the February 2012 results that the government will not be able to work with the opposition-dominated National Assembly. Hence the house was dissolved by the Constitutional Court on the pretext of violation in vote registration. The Court also re-instated the 2009 National Assembly that was dissolved in November 2011.

In October last the government changed the voting system that require voters to choose only one candidate, instead of four previously. The opposition said the changes to the voting rules were gerrymandering aimed at reducing their chances of winning and had made it easier for candidates to buy votes.

The opposition staged one of the biggest rallies in Kuwait’s history on Nov. 30, urging a boycott of the polls amid calls for the government, appointed by the ruling Al-Sabah family, to share more power with elected politicians.

Several opposition leaders were arrested over the past two months for criticizing the emir, who is considered “inviolable“ by the constitution.

Opposition leaders arrested

Several opposition leaders were arrested over the past two months for criticizing the Amir, who is considered “inviolable“ by the constitution. Musallam al-Barrak, the firebrand opposition leader, was imprisoned for 10 days after issuing an unprecedented public warning to the emir over his election decree – and accusing Jordan's King Abdullah, of sending in mercenaries to crush protests. Writing in the Guardian, UK, Musallam Al Barrak, wrote on November 25:

“We are protesting against an unconstitutional change in the electoral law pushed forward by the Amir. The electoral system divides Kuwait into five districts; 10 parliamentarians are elected from each district. Previously people could cast four votes per ballot, but the new law permits voters to cast only one. This change aims to quell the national assembly's role, as it facilitates the governing authority's control of electoral outcomes – which in turn undermines the country's democratic legitimacy.

“On a deeper level, however, the demonstrations are against individual rule, something Kuwaitis have long and actively refused. In 1962, when the current constitution – which limits the governing authority's role – was issued, it established that the public has the right to impose its opinions on the emir through the elected national assembly – a right that the governing authority refuses to acknowledge. The current struggle is therefore a struggle for power. Is power – as stated in the constitution – for the public, or is it – contrary to the constitution – for the emir?

“The majority of people also believe that the government, representing the ruling family, is not serious in its battle against corruption. In fact, people are convinced they are sponsoring it. This belief was one of the reasons behind the dissolution of the 2012 parliament and the recent changes in the electoral system, following the opposition's exposure of evidence that state money was being transferred to private accounts in London, Geneva and New York, and of the previous government bribing parliamentarians in 2009.”

Kuwaiti political activists allude to the government and opposition confrontation as fallout of the Arab Spring. "If you look at the slogans, the empowerment of the grassroots and the emergence of civil society activism then yes, we are part of the Arab spring," says political scientist Shafeeq Ghabra. "People want dignity and political participation and equality before the law. But it's not a revolution here."

Kuwaitis suffer neither hunger nor poverty. The country's oil riches have funded for a lavish welfare system since independence in 1960. Its 1.2 million citizens pay no tax but the system is rife with corruption and nepotism. In a bid to stem an Arab Spring type revolt from the masses last year the Amir gave every citizen 1,000 dinars ($3,300) in grants and free food coupons. Kuwait is the third-biggest producer in the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC). Oil still accounts for 90% of state revenues, and little progress has been made in diversifying the economy, promoting the private sector and reducing state subsidies.

Like other Gulf Cooperation Council members – Bahrain, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates - Kuwait is a US-client state which hosts a US military base. During the 2002-2003 Iraqi invasion by the US, Kuwait was a vital coalition partner, reserving a full 60% of its total land mass for use by coalition forces and donating significant assistance in kind to the Iraqi invasion.

Abdus Sattar Ghazali, the author of Islamic Pakistan: Illusions & Reality, is the Chief Editor of the Journal of America (www.journalofamerica.net) email: asghazali2011 @ gmail.com