Kuwait’s Electoral Rollercoaster:
The al-Sabah, the National Assembly and Gulf Democracy
by Dr Gerald Power
Kuwait’s electoral history has been a rollercoaster ride. Parliaments have come and gone. Constitutions have been promulgated, suspended and re-introduced. Voting rights and the overall purpose and quality of political representation have been passionately debated. It is a story of beginnings, interruptions and resumptions. But, like any rollercoaster, even violent ups and downs occur within predictable parameters. In Kuwait, the drama of general elections has been played out against a background of a resilient al-Sabah monarchy, the state’s vulnerability to external threats, and a developing political culture that has embraced elections and the whole democratic process.
Independence, a Constitution and a Parliament
Kuwait’s assertion of full independence in 1961 was not attended by any major step towards democracy. The 1940s and 1950s had demonstrated that the ruling al-Sabah family were capable of containing demands from below for political reform by a mixture of familial discipline and the development of a generous welfare state. It took an invasion scare by neighbouring Iraq in 1962 to jolt the Amir, Sheikh Abdullah Salim, into consulting with reformist members of the merchant class (longstanding agitators for checks on government powers) regarding liberalisation. A remarkably liberal constitution, including the enshrinement of a democratically-elected National Assembly with powers to examine and dismiss ministers, was the result of this. The first general elections were held in January 1963.
Over the next thirty years, relations between the National Assembly and the al-Sabah – who continued to control the executive government – were often tense and boiled over at crucial points. Although there were already important limits to the scope of democracy – including media curbs, the reservation of seats in the National Assembly for unelected ex-officio ministers and a ban on political parties – the al-Sabah remained sensitive to public criticism levelled against their stewardship of the state and were prepared to rein in the parliament when it became too challenging. In 1976 the National Assembly was shut down by the government. It was reopened in 1981 as the regional turmoil unleashed by the Ayatollah Khomeini’s triumph in Iran necessitated greater national unity. But the underlying tensions between ruling family and its critics did not evaporate.
The 1985 general elections were of momentous importance. Amid rising public dissatisfaction triggered by a stock market collapse in 1982 and proposed government amendments to the constitution, for the first time the opposition factions gained a majority in the National Assembly. The Assembly immediately began to bare its teeth, subjecting the government to greater scrutiny and forcing the dismissal of one minister. But there was to be no Soviet Union-style glasnost’ revolution – with all of its attendant chaos – in Kuwait. Instead, in 1986 the government suspended the 1962 constitution and abolished the Assembly; for a second time, the state veered towards authoritarianism.
The Iraq Invasion and the Return to Democratic Politics
1985-6 was, therefore, Kuwait’s ‘turning point when history refused to turn’. But that moment was fast approaching. The 1990-1 Iraqi invasion and occupation of Kuwait jolted the al-Sabah back into embracing meaningful popular participation in national politics. The 1990 invasion, like the 1962 Iraqi threat, compelled the government to focus on nation-building and domestic stability: rapprochement with democracy advocates was crucial to this. It was also apparent that a close relationship with the United States of America depended to an extent on fostering a genuine democracy. The consequences were profound. The 1962 constitution was restored, as was the National Assembly, and fresh elections were held in 1992. The October 1992 general election was the most important in Kuwait’s short democratic history. Despite the less than normal circumstances, it was peaceful, free and fair. It was the clearest evidence of the new compact between government and citizens, and it revealed the extent to which liberalisation and democratisation were being embraced by the nation. The number of registered voters rose significantly, from 56,848 in 1985 to 81,440 in 1992; it would rise again to 107,169 by 1996.
After 1992, general elections became institutionalised as a regular feature of Kuwaiti political life. Democracy embedded itself as an aspect of national identity which Kuwaiti citizens regarded with pride. The government recognised this, and this helped to ensure that there was no return to the wild oscillations of the 1970s and 1980s. Instead, debates in the 1990s and early 2000s focused on the political status of women in Kuwait. This debate did not begin in the 1990s, but did become much more prominent during these years. In an ironic twist, it was the Amir, Sheikh Jaber, who granted women the right to vote in 1999, before conservative elements in the National Assembly overturned the ruling as unconstitutional. The question was finally resolved in 2005, when women were enfranchised and permitted to stand as candidates. The 2006 general elections were heralded as historic around the world as Kuwaiti women cast their ballots for the first time. Three years later, the first women were elected as deputies.
Into the 2000s: Debates and Divisions
The largely smooth incorporation of women into the mainstream of democratic political life in Kuwait indicated the extent to which political liberalism had embedded itself in the amirate – but the rollercoaster was not yet ready to slow down. The years after 2012 bore witness to a revival of the tensions between proponents of democracy and the ruling family, with the unfolding of the Arab Spring across the Middle East raising still higher the tensions and the stakes. This time, rather than shutting down the Assembly and suspending the constitution, the government responded to parliamentary criticism (on matters such as corruption) and a rising tide of Islamism by introducing changes to voting procedures: reducing the number of possible individual votes from four to one. In the second of two elections in 2012 opposition candidates boycotted the ballot and took to the streets, demanding action on corruption and a return to the former voting system, which they regarded as fairer. Voter turnout in the second election of 2012 was as low as 45%. Further elections followed in 2013 and 2014 but were unable to reconcile the divides between government and opposition; in fact, much of the remaining opposition walked out of the Assembly in 2014.
Now, the Kuwaiti ‘democratic experiment’ appears to have weathered the shocks of the past decade. Voter registration is at record high levels and many opposition politicians have ended their boycott; the 2020 election will be the first since 2003 not to follow a dissolution of the Assembly by the Amir. With a new Amir and a record number of women candidates, it may be that Kuwaiti democracy is set to enter a period of stability, and the rollercoaster is finally starting to brake.
3 December 2020
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