Kuwait's elections don't solve its political crisis

Guest post by F. Gregory Gause, writing in from Kuwait City. 

 My quick read of Kuwait's elections yesterday is that they are indeed a big event in Kuwaiti history but the third round of national voting in three years will not resolve the country's deeper political crisis. 

The headline, and deservedly so, is the victory of four women candidates in the election.  It was a great achievement for each one, history making. Dr.Ma'suma al-Mubarak was the top vote getter in the first district. Dr. Asil al-Awadi was the second ranking vote getter in the 3rd district. Dr. Rola al-Dashti won in the third district as well, despite the fact that it is an overwhelmingly Sunni district and Dr. Rola is from a Shi'i family.  Dr. Salwa al-Jassar finished in the 10th spot in the 2nd district, where very few observers thought she had a good chance to win. So this is a big event in Kuwaiti history.

But there are other take-aways as well.  The Muslim Brotherhood (Islamic  Constitutional Movement, HADAS is the Arabic acronym) dropped, by my count, to only one member of parliament from three in the previous parliament.  The Salafi Islamic Grouping dropped from 5 members to 2 members.  This does not mean that Islamist sentiment is on the wane in Kuwait, I think.  Many independent Islamists did well, and in the areas where tribal tickets dominate the voting (4th and 5th districts), many of the winners have Islamist orientations.  Liberals did better than in the recent past, powered by the women candidates (all of whom can be classified, more or less, as liberals). But, overall, Islamists still outnumber more liberal members of the parliament by quite a bit.

I think that an interesting thing to note is the decline of organized political groups -- we see the Muslim Brotherhood and the Salafi Grouping losing seats, while the independent Islamists did fine.  We see the Democratic Forum (al-Minbar al-Dimuqrati) endorsing only three candidates -- two incumbents, who won, but their most outspoken member, their symbolic leader, Abdallah al-Nibari, lost. [UPDATE: The Democratic Forum (al-minbar al-dimuqrati) actually did worse than I originally thought.  Of its three candidates, only one won.  Not only did Abdallah al-Nibari lose, but incumbent parliamentarian Muhammad al-Abd al-Jadir of the Minbar also lost.  So the Minbar is down to one member.] The other major liberal group, the National Democratic Alliance (al-tahalluf al-watani al-dimuqrati) did not endorse any candidates this time around.  Candidates closely associated with it, like Dr. Asil al-Awadi and Abd al-Rahman al-Anjari, chose to run as independents, not on a "party list."  This is an indicator, it seems to me.  The good Islamist politicians (like Walid al-Tabtaba'i and Faysal al-Mislim and Adil al-Sar'awi) and the smart liberal politicians run as independents. It is worth asking why Kuwaiti voters seem to shun organized political groups.  I don't have a good answer, but it should give pause to those in Kuwait who argue that Kuwait needs a formal political party law as necessary step toward more democratic politics.  (Political parties are still formally illegal here.)

One headline from the election that is a bit deceiving is that Shi'a nearly doubled their representation from 5 to 9 members.  That is true, but a look at the story behind the numbers tells us this is not necessarily an increase in sectarian identity.  There were two Shi'a tickets put forward in the 1st district, which is about 50% Shi'a in terms of voters.  One was the more "ideological" ticket, including incumbent parliamentarians who got in hot water for attending a memorial service for Imad Mughniyya a few years ago. The other was less ideological, based on the Shirazi movement.  Only two of the four on the "ideological" ticket won, with one incumbent legislator on the ticket (Ahmad Lari) losing his seat.  Only one of the two on the Shirazi ticket won -- incumbent Salih Ashur.  As among Sunnis, it is independents who did well: incumbents Sayyid Hussein al-Qallaf (who dedicated his victory to the Amir and the prime minister, which gives you some idea where he is coming from politically these days) and Dr. Hassan al-Jawhar (another member of Kuwait University's political science department) both were re-elected. Two of the new Shi'a parliamentarians are women -- Dr. Ma'suma and Dr. Rola  -- neither of whom ran on a sectarian ticket or platform.  So Shi'a representation is now closer to equitable, given that Shi'a are probably about 20% of the citizen population.  But I do not read the results as an assertion of a particular "Shi'i" political line or ideology.

Something that won't make the international headlines but is very noteworthy here in Kuwait:  the parliamentarians who spearheaded the challenges to the government in the last parliament have almost all been re-elected (the Muslim Brotherhood being the exception here -- see above about organized groups). The names will only mean something to those interested in real Kuwaiti inside baseball:  Ahmad al-Sadoun, Musallim al-Barak, Faysal al-Mislim.  Two candidates held in jail by the government for awhile because of their incendiary remarks, Khalid al-Tahus and Dayf Allah Buramia, were also both elected.  (I doubt that they will not be disposed to give the government any breaks.)  The last parliament was dissolved because these MP's called for confidence votes on the Prime Minister.  My guess is that they will not be shy about doing that again in this parliament, though they might give the new government a longer honeymoon than the last one had.

Which brings me (finally) to my bottom line -- the "political crisis" (as Kuwaitis like to call it) will not be solved by this election.  The "crisis" is three elections in the last three years, the 6th government about to be formed in less than four years, and a sense that Kuwait cannot take any big decisions because of the stand-off between the government and the parliament.  The key to the political stasis is the unwillingness of the Al Sabah family to permit senior family members, including the Prime Minister, to face confidence votes in the parliament.  Rather than do that, the government resigns and, sometimes, parliament is dissolved. This is not because the last Prime Minister, Shaykh Nasir al-Muhammad, could not get majority support in the parliament.  He probably could have had 35 votes (out of the 50) at least if the confidence motions (called "istijwab" here --- a "demand for an answer" in Arabic that involves addressing specific questions/charges to a minister and then having a vote of confidence) had been allowed to go to a vote.  I think it is an unwillingness on the part of senior members of the family to tolerate such a precedent being set.  (There  is also quite a bit of speculation about rivalries and divisions among the Al Sabah as provoking, from behind the scenes, these confidence motions.  A number of candidates mentioned this specifically during the campaign, calling on the ruling family to close their ranks and solve their divisions.)  Unless the new Prime Minister, be it Shaykh Nasir al-Muhammad or another member of the family, is willing to play parliamentary politics, face confidence motions and put together coalitions to defeat them, we will probably have a replay of the political crises that have led to the past three elections.

Marc Lynch

Tough times for the Awakenings -- crisis or opportunity?

 Like most people who follow Iraq, I've been watching the mounting tensions surrounding the Awakenings and the uptick in violence with some concern.   I don't think that we're seeing the "great unravelling" quite yet, nor that we're yet seeing a return to higher levels of violence, insurgency and civil war.   But the increased violence and the growing chorus of complaints about the failures of political accommodation should be a cautionary note to the Iraqi government and to the major political players that time is running out to make the crucial political power-sharing agreements necessary before American troop withdrawals pick up their pace.

 The arrest of a leading Awakenings figure by Iraqi Security Forces which led to a highly-publicized military standoff a few weeks ago is only one instance of a wider pattern.  Tensions surrounding that arrest were exacerbated by an inflammatory blizzard of statements by Maliki and others warning that the Awakenings had been infilitrated by Baathists and al-Qaeda.  A series of attacks by unknown groups have added to the tension.  It all adds up to a general sense of apprehension, with members of the Awakenings worried about their future and many others worried that the security situation may be on the brink.

 The situation is extremely murky, and it's hard to really know anything with confidence.  What I've been seeing in the Iraqi and Arab media, and hearing from the people I've spoken with, is a wide range of competing interpretations and arguments over everything from the identity of the attackers (al-Qaeda? rival Awakenings groups? Shi'a militias looking to stir things up?) to the intentions of the Iraqi government (eliminate the Awakenings?  weed out the 'bad elements' within them? force the U.S. to take sides, and test the U.S. implementation of the SOFA?).  The high level of uncertainty and confusion is itself a significant point -- the impact of fear and uncertainty on strategic calculations should never be underestimated.

 Given all that uncertainty, it would be unwise to offer a confident assessment of what's really going on.  But the emerging crisis surrounding the Awakenings and the uptick in violence do both seem to be primarily driven by the continuing refusal of Maliki and the Iraqi government to make meaningful political accommodations and their decision to move against at least some of the Awakenings groups at a convenient moment.  

 The official moves against the Awakenings look like salami tactics, divide and rule rather than a full-scale assault. Maliki, as in the past, seems quite happy to work with parts of the Anbar Awakenings (talk of a political deal with Ahmed Abu Risha is in the air again) even as he moves against Awakenings elsewhere.  Maliki's government sees very clearly how fragmented, mutually mistrustful and competitive the Awakenings are.  They are likely gambling that this fragmentation creates such intense coordination problems that they can take out a few of their most dangerous potential enemies here and there without triggering a widespread Sunni uprising.  Watching the reaction of the various Awakenings thus far -- as some protested angrily but others cheered -- suggests that they are right.  It's a dangerous game, though.  The question would be whether there is some tipping point, at which a large number of uncoordinated and self-interested small groups suddenly switch sides (as arguably happened in the other direction in the spring of 2007).

 It would not take a revolt en masse for a change in the status of the Awakenings to have an effect on security.  In a recent interview with al-Arabiya, Salah al-Mutlaq warned that the government's failure to deliver on its promises of security and civil jobs to the Awakenings and the arrest of a number of Awakenings leaders were spreading fear and uncertainty through their ranks. Members who aren't getting paid, see their leaders targeted, and see diminishing prospects of future payoffs could begin to fade away. They could stop performing their local security functions, allowing violent groups easier access to areas which had been off-limits for the last year or two.   Or some could return to violent action in an individual capacity -- and even if only 10% went that route, that could put 10,000 hardened fighters back into play (in addition to people recently released from the prisons, another issue which factors in here).

 The crackdown on the Awakenings has regional implications as well, particularly with the ever-skeptical Saudis who have generally supported the Awakenings movements.  The Arab press has taken careful note of their reversal of fortunes, which Adel al-Bayati in al-Quds al-Arabi calls Maliki's coup against the Awakenings.  Tareq al-Homayed, editor of the Saudi daily al-Sharq al-Awsat (which usually reflects official Saudi thinking), complains bitterly today that recent events have made his warnings from last August about the coming betrayal of the Awakenings come true.  The Awakenings were not bearing arms against the Iraqi state, argues Homayed, but rather were protecting the Iraqi state against al-Qaeda and assisting its stabilization ahead of the American withdrawal. But, he warns, narrow, sectarian perspectives in Baghdad are winning out over the Iraqi national interest with potentially devastating consequences. 

 This reflects a theme which extends beyond the Saudi sphere. Most Arab writers (for example, the Kuwaiti Shamlan Issa in al-Ittihad yesterday) point the finger at the continuing lack of progress on political accommodation and national unity -- which for them, generally means the accommodation of Sunni interests and the integration of the Awakenings.  The "resistance camp" paper al-Quds al-Arabi has been covering the "coup against the Awakenings" as closely as have the Saudi-owned media (though with a bit more schadenfreude). Many of them are reading the crackdown on the Awakenings through as unmasking the "true Shia sectarianism" of Maliki's government -- reinforcing their pre-existing, deep skepticism about the new Iraq.  

 I'm obviously worried about all of this.  I've been warning about the potential for trouble with the Awakenings project for a long time, and it would be easy to say that those predictions are now coming due.  But I think it's way too early for that -- there is still time for these troubles to demonstrate the costs of political failure and to become the spur to the needed political action. 

 That's why it's really important that the United States not now begin to hedge on its commitment to the drawdown of its forces in the face of this uptick in violence.  It is in moments like this that the credibility of commitments is made or broken.  Thus far, the signals have been very good -- consistent, clear, and tightly linked to continuing pressure on political progress.  President Obama reportedly pushed hard on the political accommodation front during his stopover in Baghdad last week, and General Odierno did very well to emphasize on CNN yesterday that the U.S. is firmly committed to removing its troops by the end of 2011.    Maliki and everyone need to take deep breath and strike power sharing deals before things go south, and understand that they will pay consequences if they don't.