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Kuwait Analysis: Has the Emir Halted the Protests? (Herb)

Michael Herb writes for Foreign Policy magazine:

In recent years Kuwait seems to have descended into a never-ending succession of elections, government reshufflings, protests, and grillings of ministers. This often baffles outside observers, and in Kuwait it gives rise to a sense of chronic crisis and dysfunction.

Up until recently, however, it has also been possible to make out an underlying story in Kuwaiti politics, a story of the rise of the political influence of the National Assembly. Thus in 2006 the opposition forced through an electoral redistricting over the opposition of the government; in 2009 the prime minister submitted to a parliamentary vote of confidence for the first time in Kuwaiti history; in late 2011 the opposition in the National Assembly forced out the sitting prime minister; in February, following a major bribery scandal implicating pro-government members of Parliament, the opposition won a resounding 34-seat majority in the 50 member National Assembly. Not long ago, few Kuwaitis took seriously the idea of a "popular government" with a prime minister from outside the family; today many expect that it will happen, with the main question being how long it will take.

The Emir and other senior sheikhs of the ruling family have resorted to a variety of stratagems to slow the rise of the assembly. Some of these caused a good deal of harm and most contributed to the sense of paralysis and lack of direction in Kuwaiti politics. None were very effective. Earlier this fall, however, the emir tried a new tack, issuing a decree that changed the electoral system by reducing the number of votes cast by each voter from four to one.

Ballots in Kuwait feature a long list of names with no party or other affiliation. The 10 candidates with the most votes in each of the five districts win a seat in the National Assembly. The change was discouraged within-district electoral lists: some of these lists in recent elections have been run by ideological blocs, but the more successful ones have been tribal. Under the four vote system, large tribes could often capture four seats in the two tribal districts by running tribal lists, virtually shutting out the smaller tribes and other groups.

With his decree the Emir stole the momentum away from the parliamentary opposition. The opposition, fearing that the new rules would dilute the influence of political groups (and larger tribes) boycotted the December 1 parliamentary elections. Kuwait now has a solidly pro-government National Assembly for the first time in years. This is probably, however, a temporary victory for the government. To understand why, it helps to look not only at what the emir did, but also what he did not do.

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