Kuwait's landmark elections, which sent four women to parliament, made headlines around the world. But the country's long-running political crisis, F Gregory Gause writes, still shows no signs of abating. As it has so often in the past, Kuwait made political history in the Gulf on May 31 when four women took their constitutional oaths as elected members of the parliament. Though they are not the first women to be elected to a Gulf parliament, they are the first to earn their seats through a vigorous and hard-fought campaign against well-organised challengers and despite substantial opposition from Islamist conservatives. Very few Kuwaiti political observers expected so many women to win seats, and their victory was noted throughout the Middle East and the world.
The female MPs dominated the headlines after the May 16 election, and deservedly so. Their election changes Kuwaiti, and Gulf, political history. But the more telling event, in terms of Kuwait's immediate political future, occurred on May 31, after the new legislators took their oaths of office: 14 MPs staged an ostentatious walkout from the parliament hall while the new government's ministers were taking their parliamentary oaths. A few were expressing their displeasure that two of the women elected to parliament, and the sole female minister in the government, do not wear the hijab. But the majority of those who walked did so to protest what they see as a lack of new faces in the government and the absence of a detailed political programme.
The parliamentary walkout signalled that the same issues that torpedoed the last government - and forced early elections - have not been resolved. The two branches of government remain divided over substantial matters like the role of the legislature in forming the government, setting its programme and responding to the global economic crisis. Smaller and more specific issues, which include charges of corruption against particular ministers, the ambitions of individual parliamentarians and factional infighting within the ruling family present further obstacles to cooperation. What Kuwaitis of all ideological stripes call the "political crisis" is almost certain to continue. In the last four years, Kuwait has seen three parliamentary elections and six different governments (all headed by the current prime minister, Sheikh Nasser Muhammad Al Sabah).
Kuwait's parliamentary experiment, unique among the Gulf monarchies for the powers enjoyed by parliament and its free-wheeling and open elections, is not a stranger to crisis. At independence in 1961, the emir, Sheikh Abdallah al Salim Al Sabah, encouraged the writing of a constitution that gave considerable powers to the elected legislature. But other members of the ruling family have not been nearly as committed to the democratic element of the Kuwaiti constitutional monarchy. In both 1976 and 1986 the emir suspended parliament and ruled on his own. In the latter case, restoration of the constitution came only after the trauma of the Iraqi invasion of 1990 and the strong pressure from Kuwait's foreign patrons for the re-establishment of parliament. There is a sense among Kuwaitis that the democratic facet of their political system makes it easier for their foreign supporters, most particularly the United States, to guarantee their security.
This current crisis does not threaten the country's fundamental political stability. Kuwaitis have a strong sense of their national identity and distinctiveness. The Iraqi invasion of 1990 brought them together in a way that other Gulf states have not experienced. And there is still plenty of money to go around, lubricating the political process. But the crisis is real for Kuwaitis, and it has made the pursuit of long-term development policies much more difficult. It has made Kuwait into what Italy used to be in Western Europe - the home of revolving-door governments and the butt of more than a few jokes. It has also tarnished the Kuwaiti model in the eyes of others in the Gulf and strengthened those who argue that an elected parliament only frustrates development prospects. The crisis period was ushered in by the messy succession process that followed the death of the former emir, Sheikh Jabir al Ahmad, in January 2006. The crown prince, Sheikh Saad Abdallah, was incapacitated but seemed intent on taking office anyway. After a tense period of negotiations and threats, the parliament voted to depose Sheikh Saad and appoint the prime minister, Sheikh Sabah al Ahmad, as the new emir. Shortly after the vote, Sheikh Saad's abdication document arrived at the parliament. What could have been a serious political crisis was resolved to what seemed to be general satisfaction all around.
But since that time, Kuwait has not had a government last much beyond one year and no parliament has come close to completing its four-year term. The activist role of the parliament during the succession crisis of 2006 seems to have emboldened many of the MP's to take an even more confrontational stance against the government. The shift at the top also opened up rivalries among members of the Al Sabah family that the previous leadership had been able to keep submerged. Those rivalries are now a topic of open discussion among MP's and coverage in the 15 Kuwaiti daily newspapers. In no other Gulf state would the ruling family tolerate this kind of public airing of its internal affairs.
Each parliamentary dissolution since 2006 was followed by new elections, as the Kuwaiti constitution stipulates. However, in the prelude to the most recent dissolution in March, there were open discussions of the prospect of an "unconstitutional" dissolution, where the emir would rule directly without a new parliament. Some Kuwaiti elites, both in the ruling family and outside it, were openly urging the leadership to take this option, convinced that parliamentary obstructionism was preventing Kuwait from pursuing an aggressive development strategy on the model of Dubai and Qatar. In his speech dissolving the last parliament and setting the date for the May elections, the emir, Sheikh Sabah al Ahmad, intimated that this would be the last chance for the parliament to learn how to deal with the government.
International media coverage of the election, which appropriately highlighted the victory of the four women and emphasised the setbacks for Islamist groups, missed another important electoral result. The MPs from the previous parliament who led the attacks on Sheikh Nasser's last government - and introduced the confidence motions that precipitated the parliamentary dissolution - were all re-elected. By the numbers, the most popular politician in Kuwait today is Musallim al Barak. He received more votes than any other candidate running for a parliamentary seat. He was the most prominent critic of the government in the last parliament, and campaigned for re-election promising to continue to hold the government's feet to the fire through confidence motions.
Kuwait's political crisis - essentially a stalemate between the parliament and the ruling family - is therefore likely to continue, and neither the government nor the parliament is expected to last a full term. While there will be plenty of immediate issues on which the two branches could collide, the underlying reason for the tensions in Kuwaiti politics is rooted in changes in Kuwait's political sociology and the ruling family's inability to come up with a strategy for how to deal with these changes.
Kuwaitis who trace their lineage back to the old city of Kuwait had in the past been the core of the opposition political movements challenging the ruling family - merchant elites, leftists and Arab nationalists. These hadari (urban) groups, part of Kuwait's Sunni Muslim majority, were the pillars of the Kuwaiti parliament and quick to assert its prerogatives against the government. The Al Sabah rulers looked to other groups to balance them off. One was the Shiite minority, which saw the ruling family as a guarantor of their place in the Kuwaiti system and was not as caught up in the Arab nationalist enthusiasms of their Sunni neighbours. The Al Sabah also encouraged tribesmen to settle in the outskirts of the expanding town, counting on them to be a loyal political bloc and balance off the electoral power of the hadar. In the 1970s and at the outset of the 1980s, this strategy worked well for the government.
However, since the mid-1980s these social-political roles have switched. After the Iranian Revolution the Kuwaiti Shiite minority began electing MP's who are more independent and ideological, and less willing to toe the government's political line. The bedu Kuwaiti population, better educated and more mobilised politically, has likewise begun sending MP's to parliament (like Musallim al Barak) who are not automatic votes for the government. They push for the redistribution of income from the richer city centre to the outlying areas and are more than willing to challenge the government to get their piece of the pie. The new generation of hadari Sunni representatives are, conversely, much more royalist than their fathers and grandfathers.
This tripartite division of Kuwaiti society is an oversimplification of the complexity of Kuwaiti politics, to be sure. Some of the Shiite and bedu MP's are strong government supporters; hadari Sunni politicians like former parliament speaker Ahmad al Sadoun can be thorns in the government's side. But it captures the changing dynamics underlying the Kuwaiti political crisis. All elements of Kuwaiti society now see parliament as a vehicle for the independent expression of their political preferences, not simply as a means to barter votes for access to government services and jobs. These social and ideological changes have complicated the government's task of managing parliament.
But it is the unwillingness of the ruling family itself to engage in the rough and tumble of parliamentary politics that has guaranteed the continuation of the crisis. To understand this dynamic, we have to delve into Kuwaiti parliamentary procedure. The Kuwaiti constitution permits MPs to question government ministers, in a procedure called istijwab (literally, a demand for an answer). If the minister's responses are not satisfactory, an MP can call for a vote of confidence on the minister. A simple majority can then remove him or her from office. Traditionally, the prime minister has been immune from this process, but only by tradition and not by the constitution.
Since 2006 that tradition has broken down, as a result of the changes in Kuwaiti politics described above. Not only have ministers from the Al Sabah family been subject to istijwabat, so has the prime minister himself. Rather than accede to the precedent that senior family members can be questioned, and perhaps removed, by parliament, governments have chosen to resign and the emir has chosen to dissolve parliament.
Political observers agree that the confidence motions raised against the prime minister in the last parliament would have failed by large majorities, if they had been put to a vote. But the prime minister and other senior decision-makers in the ruling family were unwilling to test this proposition, and thus the emir dissolved the parliament. The effect has been to allow a small group - or even a single MP - to grind the workings of parliament to a halt. The walkout by 14 members of parliament before the new government had even taken its oath of office suggests that there will be no shortage of members willing to put forward istijwabat, even within the first weeks of the parliamentary session.
There is no more satisfying feeling for a politician in a parliamentary system than to confront his opponents after winning a vote of confidence, look them in the face and tell them to sit down and shut up. If the Al Sabah family wants to continue to provide Kuwait's prime ministers, which it no doubt does, and to have them lead governments which last more than a few months, it will have to find among its members those who are willing to take the risks of parliamentary defeat in order to enjoy that particular pleasure. The alternative is to do away with Kuwait's constitutional parliament altogether. But if that happens, Kuwait will abandon its role as the leader of the democratic movement in the Gulf. That would be a shame. And the Kuwaiti people, who in the past have taken to the streets to protest the suspension of their parliament, will eventually do so again. Then we will talk about an even more serious crisis in Kuwaiti politics.
F Gregory Gause is Kuwait Foundation Visiting Professor at the Kennedy School of Government, Harvard University, on leave from the University of Vermont. He just completed a four month Fulbright fellowship at the American University of Kuwait.
Updated: June 19, 2009 04:00 AM