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Kuwaiti politics is at standstill, even though an opposition election boycott in December 2012 led to a pro-government Kuwaiti Parliament. The deadlock is set to continue outside parliament as support for Musallam Al Barrack, the leading opposition personality grows.
Kuwait's fractious politics has once more transcended protest to violence as the authorities sought time and again to arrest the former Member of Parliament Musallam Al Barrack. In mid-April, Al Barack was sentenced to five years in jail for undermining the status of the Emir when at a protest on 15 October 2012 he said 'we [the people] shall not let you, your Highness, take us into the abyss of autocracy.'
However, four attempts to arrest Al Barrack later and he is still not in police custody. The farce of the attempted arrests involved the police not finding Al Barrack and sometimes with the former MP refusing to go with the police without a signed copy of the arrest document and the authorities' inexplicable ability to actually come up with such a document. The escalating situation has led to increasing clashes at his residence.
The night of 17 April saw up to 10,000 supporters congregate at his house in a show of solidarity. An initial decision not to march that night soon changed with the crowd attempting to storm a near-by police station. The results were predictably bloody. A court decision on 22 April granting him bail to appear in May to appeal his sentence settled the issue, but only temporarily.
Al Barrack is at the centre of Kuwait's political theatre and has become the focal point of the opposition. He is undoubtedly popular politician. He was famously elected with over 30,000 votes in the February 2012 election; a huge number in Kuwait and by far the most number of votes that a candidate has ever received. Even though the charges may be upheld in the May appeal and he may eventually go to jail in unjust circumstances, he is a long way from a Nelson Mandela figure.
Despite writing an article in The Guardian, Al Barrack is no liberal statesman and has supported some of the most distasteful conservative policies to emerge from Kuwait's Parliament in recent years. In the context of a crackdown on Twitter users, Sunni MPs proposed the death penalty for Muslims who insulted God, the Quran, the Prophet or his wives. This move was made after a Shia Twitter user, Hamad Al Naqi, was arrested for blasphemy. Al Barrack, like many of his fellow Parliamentarians, vocally supported this motion. Only the intervention of the Emir using his privilege to strike down the law prevented it from being enacted. In a similarly sectarian vein, as Mona Kareem notes, Al Barrack has been a defender of the Bahraini regime and their crackdown on their Shia population. He also supports segregation in Kuwait's education establishments.
A Pro-Government Parliament?
Al Barrack and a variety of other MPs who may loosely be described as 'the opposition' in Kuwait did not enter the December 2012 Parliamentary elections. The opposition boycotted the election after the Emir decreed changes to the voting procedures when Parliament was not in session. Although the Emir is allowed to take such actions, it is a grey area as to whether such an act needs to be voted on before it can directly affect the voting procedures. The opposition feared (probably correctly) that the new voting regime would have weakened their ever increasing grip on power in the Parliament. Rather than have their support adversely affected - and badly miscalculating that their burgeoning support in late 2012 could allow them to force the Emir to back down - they pulled out of the election.
Inevitably the Parliament elected in December 2012 was pro-government but with a lower turnout of just under 40 per cent. Shia candidates, who have often supported the government against the majority Sunni opposition, made large gains in particular winning 17 seats of the 50-member Parliament, more than doubling their representation in the previous Parliament.
However, as predicted at the time, by boycotting the elections, the opposition only left themselves with negative power: they can only affect politics in Kuwait by being as obstructionist as possible: Barrack's thwarting of the police being the latest example of their tactics to whip up support against the government.
Any hope that the pro-government Parliament would help get Kuwait's politics and projects moving again has been slow to materialise. While its intransigence does not reach the levels of previous opposition-led Parliaments, there has still been less cooperation than expected. Moreover, the government again finds itself trying to stave off splurging its budget surplus on debt-forgiveness and writing off interest on personal loans. The government in the form of the Finance Minister Mustafa Al Shamali rejected these proposals offered in early March 2013 and was 'grilled' (interpolated) in Kuwait's showboating Parliament for his troubles.
Political Deadlock Over the Economy
One of the prime issues that divided the Kuwaiti Government and the Opposition was the former's desire to avoid frittering away the Government's surplus on buying people's support. The government take the longer-term economic view that such actions are a cancerous factor in the Kuwaiti economy, hugely dis-incentivising the workforce at a time when Kuwait needs to be preparing for its post-hydrocarbon economy. Kuwait has plenty of oil left, but it is over dependent on this one source with over 90 per cent of the state budget coming from oil, the highest in the Gulf region. The opposition would counter-accuse the Government of trying to block a greater distribution of the state's wealth.
With the Government not budging on this issue, the new Parliament is not passing the large and necessary infrastructure projects that Kuwait as a country has been needing for decades and the Kuwaiti political merry-go-around continues.
It was hoped that this Parliament might be more amenable to work with the government given the backdrop of the fractious months before the last election and the agreement among all Kuwaitis that Kuwait badly needs investment. Yet each parliamentarian wants to carve out his or her pound of flesh to take as a trophy to their constituents. In a political environment with no political parties, this is one of the key ways that a parliamentarian can distinguish themself in a given constituency: promising and bringing home the cash.
There are no easy answers for Kuwait's troubles and no end in sight to the fractious politics, which seem destined to continue apace for some time to come. No sides are willing to compromise or subsume their goals to Kuwait's overall longer term interest. In the meantime, the bitterness increases and the intransigence grows, while most Kuwaitis who simply want to get on with their life grow more and more exasperated as the factions fight it out.