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03 Jul 2006

Election deepens Kuwait's political crisis

By Dominic Moran

Kuwaitis voted in the first national election since the enfranchisement of women last Thursday, with pro-reform candidates emerging victorious. However, an incipient political crisis was deepened by the strong performance of anti-government candidates, threatening to draw women into the battle between the monarchy and opposition.

The Kuwaiti constitution of 1962 cemented the authority of the ruling al-Sabah dynasty, while providing for the formation of a 50-member unicameral legislature, the Majlis Al-Umma ("House of the Nation").

Kuwait is a constitutional monarchy, with extensive powers in the hands of the emir, who appoints the prime minister and military officers, approves government ministers, promulgates laws, and refers bills back to the parliament for reconsideration.

Since the parliament's formation, al-Sabah family members and their allies have made up the bulk of government ministers, with the crown prince, until recently, appointed to lead the government as prime minister.

A correspondent for the official Kuwait News Agency (KUNA) told ISN Security Watch that the emir continued to select the government leader from among the ruling family: "He is called Sheikh Naser al-Sabah, he was Minister for Al-Diwan Al-Amiri Affairs [the Royal Court], the emir is his uncle."

Only one cabinet member has to come from among elected parliamentary deputies, while all other ministers become ex-officio members of parliament. This expands the legislature from 50 to up to 65 seats and provides supporters of the al-Sabah family with far greater strength in the plenum than is gained through the electoral process.

Emirs have used their constitutional powers to dissolve ten parliaments. There was a long hiatus between 1981 and 1991 after one such dispersal.

Despite these tight constitutional strictures the legislature has grown both more aggressive and independent in its stand on key issues such as corruption, bad governance, and alleged gerrymandering in recent years.

The crisis builds

Kuwait was plunged into political crisis by the death of Emir Sheikh Jaber al-Ahmad al-Sabah on 15 January 2006.

According to established practice, the position of emir rotates between the two major branches of the al-Sabah family. Despite suffering from colon problems and cancer Crown Prince Saad Al-Abdullah Al-Salim Al-Sabah of the al-Salim branch assumed the throne upon the death of the emir.

The move created a political crisis with Saad Al-Abdullah Al-Salim Al-Sabah viewed as unfit to serve by many elements within the al-Sabah family and wider political system. Calls for his deposition became more strident in the days following his accession, culminating in legislative moves for his ouster orchestrated by pretender, and then prime minister, Sabah Al-Ahmad Al-Jaber Al-Sabah.

With his al-Salim clan keen to prevent a precedent-setting dethronement, Saad Al-Abdullah Al-Salim Al-Sabah clung to power until 24 January when a breakthrough in negotiations within the al-Sabah family led to the issuance of a letter of abdication. The letter was presented to the Majlis shortly after it voted for the first overthrow of a sitting emir in Kuwaiti history.

Although it brought an end to the crisis of dynastic succession, the overthrow of the emir, in coordination with parliament, could not help but tarnish the standing of the monarchy and the authority of government appointees.

The emboldened parliamentary opposition, made up of loose and shifting alliances of Islamic, liberal, leftist, and other pro-reform figures (political parties are banned under the constitution) made significant political capital from the dynastic crisis. Reformists excoriated alleged government corruption and called for a reduction in the number of electoral districts from 25 to five.

The reduction is intended to weaken the power of the al-Sabah's political allies in parliament by undoing a series of political gerrymanders that gives tribal and other groups loyal to the monarchy a significant electoral advantage in many districts.

Reformist legislators demanded that they be allowed to question the prime minister - a right allowed under the constitution but never previously exercised by parliament. They stormed out of the Majlis upon the government's submission of a proposed bill reducing the number of electorates to ten.

With the legislature evenly split between pro and anti-reform factions and parliamentary business paralyzed by the ongoing split over redistricting, the emir issued a decree dissolving the Majlis on 21 May, setting new elections for 29 June, a year earlier than scheduled.

Women's suffrage

Under the 1962 constitution, only men over the age of 21 whose ancestors had lived in the emirate since 1930, and naturalized male residents who had been citizens for several decades, were allowed to vote. Military personnel and women were excluded, with the franchise effectively restricted to around 15 percent of the adult population.

On 23 November 1999, members of parliament succeeded in blocking a decree granting women's suffrage submitted by then emir Sheikh Jaber al-Ahmad al-Sabah.

Religious moderates and liberal members of parliament joined their Islamic colleagues in blocking the move on the grounds that the suffrage decree was an unconstitutional use of the emir's powers. An identical bill was reintroduced on 30 November 1999 with suffrage supporters losing in a narrow 32-30 vote.

Intervening years have seen the rise of suffragette activism in Kuwait. Hundreds of women marched on registration centers on the first day of annual voter registration on 1 April 2000, demanding to be signed on as voters. Several legal suits were filed against the government after officials refused to enter the female protesters' names on voter roles. All suits were dismissed by the courts on procedural grounds.

On 16 May 2005, the legislature voted in favor of a new suffrage bill granting women the right both to vote and to run for office as long as they adhered to Islamic law. The law passed despite the vehement opposition of tribal and conservative Islamic parliamentarians.

Shortly thereafter, Massouma al-Mubarak was appointed by the emir as the country's first female minister. According to reports, she took her seat in the legislature amid cheers from liberal parliamentarians and shouts of protest from conservatives.

"I think we have started the second phase of our process in becoming a democracy by engaging women in the political life as a voter and as a candidate," prominent Kuwaiti suffragette, economist, and parliamentary candidate Dr. Rola Dashti told ISN Security Watch on Sunday night.

"This process will continue and we will engage more women in public life," she said. This "will continue until we make sure that women are elected into the parliament" and are included "in the decision-making process."

The monarchy's support for women's suffrage came after prodding from the US, which secured the rule of the al-Sabah family in 1991 after the expulsion of Iraqi forces and has thousands of troops stationed in the emirate.

Opposition victory

Defying gerrymanders in many areas, opposition forces significantly increased their representation in parliament in the 29 June election, winning an absolute majority in the legislature with an estimated 33 seats.

Analysts provided different figures regarding the relative strength of the different opposition blocs. The Islamic grouping - representing the rival Wahhabi and Salafist streams of conservative Islam - won 17-18 seats, up from 15, with liberals continuing their slide from the 2003 election, dropping from eight to six parliamentarians.

Nine new parliamentarians were elected on pro-reform tickets after running campaigns focusing on government corruption and electoral district rezoning.

Analysts caution that two of the 33 opposition parliamentarians could vote with the government depending on the issue.

The highly fragmented nature of the opposition leads to a lack of clarity with regard to further reform efforts, Dashti noted.

"People [parliamentarians] who adopt political reform in terms of the reduction of the districts, this they have won, but the agenda of social and economic reform that the nation needs […] no one knows what their position is," she said.

The election produced a virtual stalemate in the house, where the minority of elected government supporters will be bolstered by the votes of up to 16 ministers. This bodes ill for the functioning of the new legislature.

Reformist lawmakers now have the numbers, if the informal opposition coalition of disparate forces holds, to push through legislation on electoral rezoning.

Both Dashti and the KUNA correspondent agreed that the incoming government was likely to offer a new proposal on redistricting.

"We expect this to become part of the primary agenda and this has to be finalized by the beginning of the session [12 July]," Dashti said.

"They have to show some flexibility right now because the number of so-called 'opposition candidates' have gained more seats now and the government has to deal with that," the KUNA journalist said, adding that "yesterday the government recalled the decree of the constituencies restructure and we'll see what will happen."

A government refusal to countenance a drastic reduction in electoral districts will inevitably lead to a political crisis.

If this scenario plays out, the emir will be placed in the invidious position of deciding whether to rubber stamp a reform that would devastate his political support in the house, or to dissolve the legislature in a move unlikely to please the US or the majority of the Kuwaiti populace, which voted for reform.

The opposition could also use its new strength to push for the expulsion of ministers accused of corruption - a parliamentary right under the constitution.

The government will likely look to exploit differences within opposition ranks over constitutional reform, taxation and gas and oil development to drive a wedge between its parliamentary rivals.

Engendering representation

Despite early indications on election day that women were voting in large numbers, only 55-60 percent of eligible women cast ballots.

Most voted for male candidates, many of whom had tailored their campaigns to appeal to women.

The KUNA source told ISN Security Watch that women voters "helped many, many [male] candidates win their seats."

There were reports of vote-buying targeting women, with bribes including cash-stuffed Louis Vuitton bags.

Dashti confirmed these rumors in her conversation with ISN Security Watch: "We did witness corruption through vote-buying, no doubt about it. I was in an area that had the most vote-buying […] During voting it was a transparent process. It's the process prior to voting that we had vote-buying, we had these tribal primaries."

She explained that Muslim Brotherhood candidates had won elections through corrupt tribal elections and that reformist pleas for redistricting were intended, in part, "to reduce the impact of tribalism on the political process."

Political analysts had cautioned that the 28 women candidates were unlikely to perform well in the election due to their low public profile; political inexperience; failure to unite in informal coalitions with others among the 259 candidates; and the deep conservatism of many voters.

However, the poor showing of women candidates still came as a shock to many supporters given that 57 percent of eligible voters were women.

Dashti was one of the highest vote-getters among the women, garnering 1,539 votes in finishing a distant fifth in the tenth precinct behind two men who both snared around 5,000 votes.

Less well-known women candidates only received a handful of votes in many electorates.

The result is a major blow to women's chances in future elections as it creates the impression that they are unelectable in a political environment where the fierce competition between reformist and government candidates militates against "wasted" votes.

Emir Sheikh Sabah Al-Ahmad Al-Sabah may have counted on women to bolster the chances of pro-government candidates, in return for his championing of suffrage, but any such hopes proved chimerical.

There are indications that the emir may decide to name more women to the cabinet in an effort to normalize their presence in parliament and government. Several prominent women political candidates have indicated that they would seriously consider any such offer.

"We do expect that women will become part of the incoming cabinet. We do hope that we will have two women instead of one woman in the cabinet, but this is in the hands of the prime minister who is asked to [form the government]," Dashti said.

This may be a politically damaging move for women, associating their presence in the government and legislature with royal appointment and decree, while placing women ministers in a potentially adversarial position in relation to reformist legislators.

Kuwaiti women have won their struggle for political rights but remain a long way from full representation in public bodies as the emirate lurches towards another political crisis.

Dr Dominic Moran, based in Tel Aviv, is ISN Security Watch's senior correspondent in the Middle East and the Director of Operations of ISA Consulting.

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