Kuwait Court Rules Against Government on Election Law Change

Kuwaiti Prime Minister Sheikh Jaber al-Mubarak al-Sabah
Sheikh Jaber al-Mubarak al-Sabah, Kuwait's prime minister. Photographer: Yasser Al-Zayyat/AFP/Getty Images

Kuwait’s top court threw out a request by the government to change voting laws, in a victory for opposition campaigners who are demanding that the ruling family hand more powers to elected politicians.

The Constitutional Court, which drew criticism in June by dissolving the opposition-dominated parliament, ruled today against a government bid to amend the electoral law, the state-run Kuwait News Agency reported. The opposition said the measure was gerrymandering by an administration that was defeated at the polls in February. Thousands rallied late yesterday in front of the parliament, calling for its powers to be expanded.

Kuwait’s steps toward democracy have led to repeated clashes between the parliament and governments chosen by the ruling Al-Sabah family. The economy, the third-biggest producer in the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries, has trailed Gulf peers as investment projects got derailed by political disputes. Street protests last year, amplified by the wave of unrest across the Arab world, drove out a government headed by the emir’s nephew amid increasing calls for power to be transferred from the monarchy to elected bodies.

“It looks to me like the shaping of some kind of perfect storm,” said Christopher Davidson, who specializes in the study of the Persian Gulf at Durham University in the U.K. “Kuwait is the only Gulf monarchy where we witnessed a popular movement unseating a key member of the ruling family. If they can do that, they can do more.”

Parliament Boycott

The opposition won a majority in the elections in February, only for the court to annul the vote in a June ruling and reinstate the previous parliament. Since then, opposition lawmakers have refused to attend and called on premier Sheikh Jaber Al-Mubarak Al-Sabah, like his predecessor Sheikh Nasser a member of the ruling family, to quit.

“The opposition has gained more weight with this verdict,” said Ayed Al-Manna, a political analyst at Kuwait’s Public Authority for Applied Education. He predicted that the verdict will lead to the dissolution of parliament followed by elections in which the opposition will probably extend gains.

Many opposition figures, including lawmaker Waleed Al-Tabtabai, demand a constitutional monarchy. “It’s high time that people regained sovereignty,” he told a Sept. 10 opposition rally, according to Al-Jarida newspaper. “We, the nation, have decided that Sheikh Jaber Al-Mubarak will be the last prime minister from the descendants of Mubarak.” Addressing the dynasty, he said: “You rule, and we govern.”

Stocks Lag

The recurring rows have held back Kuwait’s $112 billion development plan to modernize and diversify an oil-reliant economy.

While growth rebounded to 8.2 percent in 2011, it was the slowest among the six Gulf Cooperation Council countries over the previous five years. Kuwait’s benchmark stock index has fallen 25 percent in dollar terms since the start of 2009, while the Bloomberg GCC 200 Index of the main regional stocks gained 17 percent.

“Two players are harming the economy: the government by not doing anything and the parliament by putting obstacles in the government’s way,” said Ali Al-Baghli, a former oil minister who’s now chairman of National International Co. Holding, an investment company. The government has failed to reinvest Kuwait’s record budget surplus in the economy, he said.

The court verdict could give new momentum to the opposition in Kuwait, which like other Gulf states is vulnerable to popular movements after the Arab revolts last year, Davidson said, speaking before the ruling.

Gulf Triggers

“Each Gulf state is waiting for its trigger,” he said. “We’ve had a bit of a lull, in terms of protests, and I think they’ll be back. It’s just a question of what will bring them back.”

Bahrain’s government cracked down last year on protests led by the Shiite Muslim majority, leaving dozens dead and the economy growing at the slowest pace in more than a decade. There were also demonstrations for higher living standards in Oman, and among the Shiite minority in Saudi Arabia. The kingdom, the world’s biggest oil exporter, announced an extra $60 billion in social spending last year to ward off unrest.

Kuwait’s opposition includes Islamists, liberals and independents, as well as youth groups that draw inspiration from last year’s Arab uprisings. Some groups demand a constitutional monarchy and an elected government, while others say their focus is fighting corruption.

Political Deadlock

The country has had 10 Cabinets since February 2006 and the legislature has been dissolved five times. Banks have scaled back lending amid the political deadlock. Private-sector borrowing in Kuwait grew at the slowest pace in at least 17 years in 2011. Loans to private businesses rose 4.6 percent in July, about one-third the pace of Saudi Arabia.

Kuwait is ranked above the other five GCC countries in the Economist Intelligence Unit’s 2011 Democracy Index. Those monarchies have drawn a connection between Kuwait’s step toward democracy and its economic stagnation, Davidson said.

Still, the political opening may “end up being Kuwait’s saving grace,” he said. “There’s that tiny bit of room for maneuver that the other monarchies just don’t have.”

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