Kuwait’s Tribal Primaries: Eroding an Older Order?

‘Tribal primaries’ and what they might mean for the status quo in Kuwaiti politics.

The election to Kuwait’s National Assembly on 2 February 2012 heralds the beginning of a different era in Kuwaiti politics. A surging youth movement interconnected by social media as never before has intersected with rising public anger at the perceived failure of the current generation of politicians to tackle issues of corruption, economic underdevelopment, and bottlenecks to development. While not directly related to the Arab Spring, the escalating series of popular demonstrations that culminated in the storming of the National Assembly on 16 November and the resignation of the embattled Prime Minister (Sheikh Nasser Mohamed Al-Sabah) the following week, were certainly derivative from the zeitgeist moving so powerfully through the region.

Social media has transformed the nature of political campaigning. Kuwaitis are among the most technology-savvy people in the world with near-universal rates of smartphone penetration. The Twitter accounts of political and media personalities have tens of thousands of followers and have contributed to a vibrant and open discussion of the major issues and political choices at hand. Twitter was in its infancy at the time of the previous election in May 2009, and its rise has energised the segments of the electorate already buoyed by the success of the youth movements in effecting prime ministerial change. After the lacklustre early elections of May 2008 and the following year, the excitement has rekindled memories of the June 2006 campaign, which also came in the wake of youth-led mobilisation in support of change, in that case reducing the number of electoral constituencies from twenty-five to five.

A major rationale for reorganising the constituency boundaries was to reduce their vulnerability to vote-buying and electoral manipulation. Fewer but larger constituencies, it was argued, would make this harder to achieve, by increasing the size of each electorate, as well as the numbers of votes necessary to get elected. It is against this backdrop that the holding of ‘tribal primaries’ in the tribal-dominated fourth and fifth constituencies, has unfolded.

Tribal primaries are prohibited by Kuwaiti law. They are also controversial and opposed by many Kuwaitis who feel they prioritise a narrow tribal identity at the expense of any larger affiliation. Moreover, they make it harder for candidates not affiliated with, or supported by, a particular tribe to win an election, as the purpose of the primary is to enable members of a tribe to select the candidate they will back for election, thereby reducing the likelihood of splitting and weakening the tribal vote across different candidates. Participants in the tribal primaries are referred to the Public Prosecution for further investigation.

A number of major tribes in the fourth and fifth constituencies nevertheless held primaries in late-December and early-January to select their preferred candidates for the election. These primaries were notable for the strong showing of Islamist candidates, particularly Salafists, and for the rejection of ex-MPs associated with the corruption scandal that rocked Kuwaiti politics last year. They suggest that a mood for change is afoot among Kuwaitis dissatisfied with the status quo and anxious to break the deadlock that has paralysed Kuwaiti politics for the past decade.

Yet it was also significant that a number of leading political figures, former MPs, and youth activists refused to participate in the tribal primaries, and spoke out publicly against them. They included the high-profile opposition MP, Musallam al-Barrak, from the Mutairi tribe in the fourth constituency, who also boycotted the tribal primary in 2009 and won election on his own. Moreover, youth groups and activists made their presence felt by holding seminars to raise awareness of the issue, and announcing their support for candidates who refuse to take part in the primary processes.

Only time will tell if the desire for change translates into meaningful and sustained changes to Kuwait’s political structures. The results of the election, and the way the government manages the steadily-rising bar of oppositional politics, will be crucial harbingers of future trajectories. Already, in less than a decade, the boundaries for the political opposition have widened to include questioning the Prime Minister, and, now, to effecting his removal, albeit reluctantly and by extra-parliamentary pressure. Yet it is notable that candidates have, this time, called for sweeping constitutional changes, up to and including an elected government, thereby turning Kuwait into the Arab world’s first genuine constitutional monarchy.



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