Kuwaitis have gone to the polls three times in the past five years, but this latest round takes place at a time when the relationship between the al-Sabah ruling family and Kuwaiti citizens is undergoing important changes. Political scientists have shown that economic and political changes can prompt the strategic decision to call early elections. Three such changes prompted the emir’s decision to dissolve parliament and raise the stakes of the next election’s results. First, lowering fuel subsidies has proved very unpopular and has prompted backlash by Kuwaitis and parliamentarians alike. Second, regional tensions after the 2011 Arab Uprisings and an Islamic State attack on a mosque in Kuwait City last year have raised security concerns. Finally, tribal groups that boycotted the 2013 elections remain unsatisfied.
Cuts to Kuwaitis’ subsidies
Kuwait’s government announced cuts to fuel subsidies in August 2016. Because of floundering revenue from the low price of oil on global markets, it could no longer afford the subsidies and sought to limit its citizens’ consumption of fuel. Subsidies, however, are part of the ruling bargain in Kuwait by which the government essentially buys the consent of its citizens. Lowering subsidies by up to 83 percent on fuel means higher prices for Kuwaitis and raises fears that other cuts may be on the way.
Unsurprisingly, the cuts are unpopular and have provoked outrage in the parliament. Parliamentarians have threatened to grill numerous Kuwaiti ministers, all of whom represent the government. Early elections allow the emir to avoid a showdown in the parliament over subsidies and months of parliamentary criticism of the government’s policies. This decision may backfire if the opposition gains seats. However, it buys the government time to get Kuwaitis accustomed to higher prices, avoids the lack of confidence grilling ministers would have created, and creates a distraction in the form of electoral politics.
Kuwait’s crackdown on security threats
Kuwait’s government has also acted in recent months out of a concern for security. In June of 2015, a Saudi member of the Islamic State carried out a suicide bombing at a mosque in Kuwait. In response to the bombing, Kuwait initiated a security crackdown and arrested 29 people, seven of whom were sentenced to death. The government also initiated restrictions on political speech throughout 2016, citing security concerns. In January, parliament passed a law restricting speech on social media and police arrested online activists for criticizing the Saudi government. In May, a Kuwaiti court sentenced three members of the royal family to prison for insulting judges on the messaging platform WhatsApp. In September, the government ordered activist Sara al-Darees arrested for social media posts critical of the emir. Like most governments in the region, Kuwait sees national unity and security as inextricably linked.
Elections create an opportunity for the government to shift political debate away from sensitive issues and downplay criticism as electoral pandering. It also gives the government an opportunity to try to create a more favorable balance of supporters and opposition in parliament at a time when it views Kuwait’s security as under threat. Finally, it allows Kuwait to seat a new parliament as soon as possible, reducing instability should the 87-year-old emir’s health take a turn for the worse.
Dissatisfaction among tribal groups
Tribal opposition to the government also remains a major concern for the royal family. Kuwait originally granted tribes citizenship to offset opposition in parliament from nontribal groups. Beforehand, these nomadic and migratory tribes had alliances with the al-Sabah family but were generally self-governed. However, modernization has shifted the political stances of a young generation of tribe members seeking employment, less corruption and the respect of their nontribal peers. In the 2013 elections, tribal and Islamist opposition groups threatened to boycott elections in Kuwait. The emir was able to convince these tribes to end the boycott by meeting with their leaders but the dissatisfaction of tribe members themselves remains.
The leader of tribal opposition in 2013 was a member of parliament from the Mutair tribe named Musallem al-Barrack. Currently serving a prison sentence for insulting the emir, al-Barrack will be released in 2017. Holding early elections prevents him from running for parliament and severely restricts his ability to rally tribal opposition. The result for the emir would be a much less antagonistic parliament and a temporary solution to the dissatisfaction of tribal Kuwaitis.
Kuwait is motivated by long-term concerns about subsidies, security, and tribal opposition but snap elections are a short-term solution. They will be the first step in a much longer process by which Kuwait’s government, along with others in the region, manages new demands of accountability and patronage from citizens. Kuwait’s elections will be an indication of whether the government is willing or able to manage these new demands, or resorts to stopgap measures that leave these demands unaddressed.
Scott Weiner recently received his Ph.D in political science from George Washington University.