Kuwait is likely to face more instability in the long run even when it emerges from its latest crisis, as its opposition pushes for more say in governing the major oil exporter and U.S. ally.
The Gulf state has escaped the kind of mass popular protests that forced four Arab dictators out of office in 18 months. But the success of those uprisings has heightened opposition calls for a full parliamentary democracy in Kuwait in which governments are chosen by elected majority blocs.
The Gulf state’s cabinet resigned on Monday, days after a top court annulled a February election that gave the Islamist-led opposition a majority. It ruled that a previous assembly friendly to the government should replace it instead.
Most parliamentarians and analysts expect that Kuwait’s 83-year-old emir, who has the last say in politics, will dissolve the reinstated parliament soon, triggering elections sometime after the holy month of Ramadan which starts around July 19.
Last week, politicians from the outgoing assembly raised the stakes in their standoff with the government, when they said that a “full parliamentary system” had become a necessity.
“The basis of this crisis is the same as all the others...it is a deep political crisis and relates to the chiefdom mentality of the powers which is not allowing Kuwait to develop into the modern and democratic state,” said Ahmad al-Deyain, a member of Kuwait’s leftist “Progressive Current”.
“Kuwaiti opposition is now much more widespread and the population is a lot more aware.”
Kuwait was buffeted by regular demonstrations in 2011, including one in November in which hundreds of angry men stormed parliament to press for the sacking of the premier at that time.
Politicians from the previous parliament have now called for protests against the annulment of the February election result.
“The Arab Spring may have exacerbated existing tensions that were already there,” said Sam Wilkin, associate analyst at Control Risks in Dubai. “That may have played a role in the limited amount of popular protest that did occur in Kuwait.”
While the latest turn of political events came as a surprise, some said it would give Kuwait the chance to wipe the slate clean, at least in the short-term.
“My understanding is that this crisis will pass smoothly,” Ghanim al-Najjar, professor of political science at Kuwait University, said. “The parliament might meet once then it will be dissolved as it should then fresh elections will be called for and we will move on.”
Political turmoil is not new in Kuwait, which has ushered in four parliaments in six years.
One of the world’s wealthiest countries per capita, the OPEC member state has struggled with a corruption scandal implicating political figures and poor parliament-government relations that have hampered policymaking.
Although Kuwait has one of the most democratic systems in a Gulf region ruled by autocrats, political parties are banned so politicians tend to form blocs based on religious and tribal ties. This has complicated Kuwait’s political scene and at times aggravated underlying sectarian tensions between majority Sunni Muslims and Shi’ite Muslims, who include some vocal politicians.
The current crisis is different to the one that engulfed the country late last year, Najjar said, because the unpopular prime minister, a nephew of the emir, has been removed.
Sheikh Nasser al-Mohammed al-Sabah’s government resigned last year after some opposition lawmakers accused it of having made a series of illegal financial transfers via Kuwait’s overseas embassies.
A judicial tribunal cleared him of any wrongdoing but the suspicions against him and other political figures helped Kuwait’s mainly Islamist opposition make gains in February’s election when they campaigned on an anti-corruption platform.
Opposition lawmakers failed to strike a deal with the ruling family in February for a significant share of cabinet posts. They were offered four out of a possible 16 following the election, but they held out for nine, scuttling any deal.
Since then, the emboldened opposition has sought to question cabinet ministers in parliament and forced the resignation of two, including the finance minister.
Infighting hampers development
The infighting has distracted lawmakers from legislation and threatened the timetable of Kuwait’s 30 billion dinar ($107 billion) economic development plan that includes major infrastructure projects supposed to draw in foreign investment.
The next parliamentary election might bring in a more government-friendly assembly, Wilkin from Control Risks said, as the aftermath of the corruption scandal runs its course.
Opposition parliamentarians came in on an anti-graft platform but then pushed for Islamist legislation instead, he said, instead of sticking strictly to their manifestos.
“Since being elected they have pursued Islamist legislation to a degree not representative of Kuwait’s population, which is relatively secular in outlook,” he said, citing a push to make Islamic law the main source of all legislation and efforts to bring in the death penalty for blasphemy.
Emir Sheikh Sabah al-Ahmad al-Sabah blocked both proposals, according to MPs.
But governance in the state of 3.6 million people is complicated by its ungainly political structure.
Kuwait’s hereditary emir picks the prime minister, who selects 15 ministers to join his cabinet, usually with members of the Sunni ruling family in senior posts.
This cabinet has to work with an elected parliament of 50 lawmakers and relations have been fraught. The emir also has the power to dissolve the assembly as many times as he pleases.
He has often exercised this power when fighting between the parliament and cabinet peaked and when senior government ministers are under pressure.
“The emir remains determined to prevent the opposition from challenging the regime’s structural pillars,” analyst Ayham Kamel from Eurasia group wrote in a note last week.
“Many within the ruling family have come to believe that the emir’s accommodation of opposition demands have weakened the al-Sabah family and the foundations of the political system.”