Protesters storm the Kuwaiti Parliament, November 2011
Kristian Coates Ulrichsen writes for Foreign Policy:
Kuwait's Emir on Monday took the unprecedented step of activating article 106 of the constitution, giving him the right to suspend the National Assembly for one month. It marked the first time in Kuwait's 50-year parliamentary history that the assembly has been suspended in this way, although it was twice dissolved unconstitutionally (in 1976 and in 1986), and has been dissolved constitutionally four times since 2006 alone. Two days later, the Constitutional Court issued an even more momentously abrupt decision as they ruled that the February 2012 election was void and ordered the return of the previous assembly. The ruling by Kuwait's highest court is final and cannot be challenged, and followed a challenge to the constitutionality of December's decree that called for new elections following the dissolution of the previous assembly on December 6 2011.
Both actions took politicians and the public completely by surprise. They herald the beginning of Kuwait's deepest political crisis since the post-liberation restoration of parliamentary life in 1992. Leading opposition MP Musallam al-Barrak, who had gained the highest number of votes in Kuwaiti electoral history in the February election, immediately described the court ruling as "a coup against the constitution." While unexpected, these moves did not occur in a vacuum. Rather, they represent the culmination of a period of escalating instability as two broader trends in oppositional politics intersected with deep divisions within Kuwaiti society.
The February 2, 2012 election had produced an opposition landslide, as predominantly Islamist and tribal candidates won 34 out of the 50 parliamentary seats. Their gains came largely to the detriment of Kuwait's well-established liberal and merchant elites (as well as the four female MPs who all lost their seats). The results reflected the sharp bifurcation in Kuwaiti society, in part between a traditional political class dominated by hadhar (settled) urban elites tracing their lineage back to the pre-oil era, and newer arrivals largely from tribal backgrounds (badu) as a result of the large-scale naturalization projects of the 1960s and 1970s. Although far from monolithic in social or political objectives, debates and clashes over the direction of policy often took on cultural and class-based overtones and became as much a struggle for the future orientation of Kuwait as a contest for political power.
In addition to this volatile mix, an intergenerational shift has added to the reconfiguration of Kuwait's political culture. Since 2006, new youth movements have appeared on the scene. Initially mobilizing around demands to change Kuwait's electoral districting, they became known as the "Orange Movement" in a reference to Ukraine's color revolution in 2004-5. In a precursor to the methods of political organization that so powerfully reshaped the parameters of protest in North Africa in 2011, they used text messaging, internet blogging, and online social networks to coordinate and plan their activities and articulate their demands for reform.
The emergence of these new social groups tested Kuwait's creaking parliamentary machinery to its limit. In particular, they exposed the weaknesses in the balance of power between an elected parliament and an appointed cabinet. Uneasy at the best of times, it has become almost unworkable over the past decade. Beginning with the separation of the posts of Crown Prince and Prime Minister in 2003, the bar of oppositional politics has steadily risen, encompassing such milestones as the first interpellation of a sitting Prime Minister in 2009, and culminating in the mass popular demonstrations that eventually ousted Sheikh Nasser Mohammed Al-Sabah last November. Although the separation of powers in 2003 was motivated largely by the Crown Prince's debilitating illness, it nevertheless signalled that the Prime Minister was fair game for political opposition and public criticism.
The result has been political paralysis and a succession of stalled development projects.