Kuwait came to a colourful and noisy standstill Thursday last week as it went to the polls to elect its 50 member National Assembly. In a region familiar with absolute rule, Kuwait is an impressive exception; a sort-of quasi constitutional monarchy. Elections – which were first held in 1962 – are – as I witnessed last Thursday as an International observer – free and fair but the Emir, not the elected parliament appoints the prime minister, who in turn appoints all ministers, with the Foreign, Security, Defence and Interior ministries being reserves exclusively for members of the ruling Al-Sabah family.
The fact that Kuwaitis do not pay tax and enjoy a lavish cradle to the grave welfare system means that, in a bizarre reversal of the colonial American aphorism, Kuwaitis enjoy representation without taxation. But this luxury has prevented the rise of political parties, as individual candidates, not required to hold the government to account for spending their constituents’ taxes, pursue individualistic agendas that may secure personal power but are devoid of coherent long-term political vision.
What MPs are good at doing is hauling in ministers for committee hearings – known as “grillings”. It was these repeated demands (which can be made by a single MP and brings the whole machinery of government to grinding halt, making legislation impossible) that precipitated the Prime Minister’s resignation late last year (after a number of his ministers were accused of stashing millions of embezzled dollars in foreign bank accounts) and the calling of elections. There have been 7 governments toppled by parliament in the last 6 years. Kuwaitis are frank in pointing out the dysfunctional nature of their political system;
“We have stalemate politics” says a prominent political scientist. “A lot of motion but no product”
But all of this does not prevent politics in Kuwait being extremely vibrant and popular. On polling day thousands of men and women (Kuwait has enjoyed universal suffrage since 2005 and women are in the majority as voters) thronged around polling stations singing songs of support for their preferred candidates and pushing flyers into the hands of passing voters. The alleged corruption of the government – and the chronic inability of the parliament in passing legislation to enable the inward investment, economic diversification and job creation that Kuwaitis – especially the young – demand, has increased public interest in the political process. The 2012 campaign had been more unruly than ever before as candidates traded insults on TV and groups of opposing tribesmen burnt down the campaign tent of a hostile candidate and even broke into the studio of a major TV network.
The question for Kuwait now is how can a productive balance of power be found to end “stalemate politics” and to ensure that future parliaments are not simply groups of opportunist individuals intent on blocking legislation? The answer to this question has just become more complicated by the surprise results of Thursday’s poll: with Islamist and tribal candidates winning 23 of the Assembly’s 50 seats (liberals won nine and four women MPs lost their seats leaving the Assembly with no women at all) Kuwait’s democracy looks set to enter a stormy new phase. The stalemate politics of the past is under new pressure but the direction of travel is not yet clear.