The opposition boycott of the December 1 parliamentary elections in Kuwait has been followed by peaceful protests in which tens of thousands have supported opposition claims that an October 19 change to the electoral law giving each voter one vote instead of the previous four is unconstitutional and that the newly elected parliament, the 50-seat Majles al-Ummah, therefore has no popular legitimacy. The protesters’ case is strengthened by the fact that election officials put the turnout at 43 per cent, which is itself much lower than the usual 60 per cent. The opposition parties also contend that the changed law gerrymanders the result in favour of pro-government candidates; the government, on the other hand, says the result enables better cooperation between the executive and the legislature — but the Emir appoints the Council of Ministers, of whom 16 also sit in the Majles. For the record, the parties which boycotted the election have been hit hard. In addition, the three largest Bedouin tribes, which had as many as 17 seats in previous assemblies, now have only one. Second, the new assembly will contain 17 members of the minority Shia community, who form 30 per cent of the 1.2 million native Kuwaiti population; three women have won seats, but four of the earlier assembly were women.
The recent developments constitute a key development in the Kuwaiti people’s campaign for democracy, which predates the Arab Spring by five years or so. The Kuwaiti public have for some time shown what they think, with demonstrations which had swelled to 50,000 people by November 2011; their suspicions deepened when, in June 2012, the constitutional court annulled the February elections, in which Islamist opposition candidates had won up to 34 seats, and reinstated the earlier parliament; subsequent protests numbered 100,000. The reinstated body tried to meet in July and August, but a majority of members stayed away. Furthermore, the leading opposition politician Mussallam al-Barak was arrested for “undermining the status of the Emir” by criticising him in public. Mr. al-Barak was given bail, but faces a potential five-year jail term. The ruling al-Sabah family appears to be avoiding the full political implications of the current unrest; the Emir’s replacement of the Prime Minister, a relative, with another relative will not convince the public. Neither will the $108-bn plan to diversify the oil-dependent economy assuage the demands for political reform. The Kuwaiti public rightly demand genuine representative democracy, and given that democracy has penetrated deeper in Kuwait than it has done in many other Gulf countries, a constitutional monarchy would be a pioneering and constructive creation.