July 6, 2016

Parliamentary Boycotts in Kuwait and Bahrain Cost Opposition

Islamist, nationalist, and liberal opposition groups gather on Nov. 30, 2012 to protest the Kuwait government's amendment of the electoral law and support a boycott on the country's election. (AP Photo/Gustavo Ferrari)

Citizens of the Gulf’s leading parliamentary monarchies have access to a pressure point that other Gulf citizens do not: If the ruling family-led executive is refusing reforms or taking unilateral political actions, they may withhold their participation in elections. Yet this past month dramatically demonstrated the limited power of the political boycott, and the considerable cost of leaving the formal political arena. In Kuwait and Bahrain, the leading opposition political figure and political society respectively have been banned from politics following the passage of new laws passed by the parliament: the very institution they are boycotting.

The amendments to the Kuwait Electoral Law and the Bahrain Political Society law are part of pre-emptive actions taken by the respective governments to remake the political arena in advance of the 2017 (in Kuwait) and 2018 (in Bahrain) parliamentary elections, which were expected to see the return of some of the opposition into formal political life. These steps are the culmination of years of building political support and a legal basis for excluding an opposition emboldened by the fall of Arab autocrats and demanding fundamental changes that would increase the power of elected institutions.

The Context for Boycott

The decisions to boycott came in the context of the Arab Spring, in which youth-driven political mobilization compelled Gulf opposition politicians to escalate their political demands. In Bahrain, the leading Shia Islamist opposition society, al-Wefaq, resigned its 18 seats in the 40-member Parliament in reaction to the lethal crackdown on a political uprising initiated by the youth-led February 14th movement. Continuing anti-regime sentiment within the Shia community and the absence of significant progress in negotiations with the government over political reforms led al-Wefaq to boycott the 2012 by-elections and the ensuing 2014 parliamentary elections. The latter boycott was taken despite substantial political pressure from the Bahraini government and Western allies, and with notable disagreement within al-Wefaq itself.

In Kuwait, the boycott strategy was adopted to protest the court-imposed dissolution of the 2012 opposition-led Parliament, and the subsequent decision of Emir Sheikh Sabah al-Ahmed al-Sabah to change voting procedures to the detriment of the opposition. Most of the opposition coalition made up of Sunni Islamists, tribal populists, and leftist nationalists continued the electoral boycott through a second election held in July 2013 after the Parliament was again dissolved over procedural flaws.

In both Bahrain and Kuwait the boycotts failed to win political concessions from the ruling-family led executive. Instead, the reliance on extra-parliamentary actions, including street-based political mobilization, invited punitive action from the governments and their allies. At the same time, the continuing appeal of the parliament, despite its limited power, opened up divisions within Islamic movements and with the broader opposition.

The Cost of Boycotts

Parliaments in the Arab Gulf act as important arenas for bargaining for state patronage. Remaining outside of the parliament deprives political societies of the constituent services and government posts that are the very currency of influence and power. This has been particularly apparent in Kuwait where one of the leading proponents of the boycott strategy, the Muslim Brotherhood, has lost ministerial posts under the current emir, and jobs and influence within the Islamic Endowments and Education ministries since the boycott. The position of Bahrain’s al-Wefaq was different as the boycott followed the widespread dismissal of citizens deemed disloyal from government and private sector jobs. Still its absence from the Bahrain Chamber of Deputies did deprive it of a formal political voice and a degree of political legitimacy.

The electoral boycotts in Bahrain and Kuwait returned parliaments friendly to the government and their programs. This facilitated the easy passage of new security powers tightening controls on media, free speech, and public assembly, including amendments to the terrorism law in Bahrain and a restrictive cybersecurity law in Kuwait. Furthermore, pro-government members of parliament supported the alteration of internal rules so as to weaken parliamentary immunity and tighten requirements for bringing forth parliamentary inquiries. Government opponents have complained about the loss of legislative oversight as long delayed mega projects went forward in Kuwait and unpopular government austerity measures were implemented in Bahrain.

The electoral boycott in Bahrain also cost the opposition the – admittedly limited – support of the U.S. government. Al-Wefaq’s decision to boycott in 2014 frustrated U.S. policies pressing for participation and reconciliation. U.S. government officials made clear at the time that a boycott would leave the movement vulnerable to government retribution and beyond the protection of the United States – a prophecy that came quickly to pass as al-Wefaq’s Secretary General Sheikh Ali Salman was arrested on charges of inciting hatred, promoting disobedience, and “insulting” public institutions a month after the election.

Government Strategies and the Future of the Opposition

In the past two weeks these governments have taken additional targeted action to preclude the return of leading oppositionists to parliament. In Kuwait, an amendment to the Election Law bars those convicted of blasphemy or insulting the emir from voting or running for office. The legislation, already approved by the Cabinet and published in the official gazette, bans from the Parliament several former members including the influential leader of the Popular Democratic Movement, Musallem al-Barrak, who famously challenged the emir in a public speech in 2012 and is currently serving a two year jail sentence.

The new amendment was rejected by all currents within the opposition, with the Islamic Constitutional Movement, the National Democratic Alliance, the Kuwait Democratic Forum, and Kuwait Progressive Current issuing a joint statement denouncing it as unconstitutional and contravening human rights. Yet it is unclear if this cooperation will mend the cracks that opened up within the opposition after the Muslim Brotherhood-backed Islamic Constitutional Movement and the Salafi Thawabat al-Ummah announced their intent to end the political deadlock by fielding candidates in 2017 parliamentary elections, citing the boycott’s negative impact on public freedoms and development. Their decision was denounced by youth leaders who noted the lack of political concessions, including the release of jailed opposition activists or revocation of the emir’s decree changing voting procedures.

In Bahrain, the Ministry of Justice and Islamic Affairs demanded the dissolution of al-Wefaq based upon its contravention of new amendments to the 2005 Political Society Law banning the mix of politics and religion. The amendments were passed by the Council of Representatives, approved by the Shura Council, and then issued by King Hamad bin Isa al-Khalifa. The ministry stated its mission as “to rectify the political trajectory of all factions” in preparation for the 2018 parliamentary elections. It is unclear whether the new law will be applied to Sunni Islamist political societies or to Sunni preachers, some of whom serve in the current Parliament. The deputy secretary general of the Muslim Brotherhood-backed Islamic Platform issued a tweet praising the government action as “courageous.”

The sharp deterioration in regional security provides a supportive environment for these tough actions, as the rising threat of terrorism and escalating confrontation with Iran have led many citizens to fear radicalization and political instability. Since the amendments were issued, both governments have cracked down on Sunni extremist networks, with Bahrain sentencing 24 supporters of the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant and Kuwait arresting several suspected ISIL members plotting attacks in the emirate.

Both governments have portrayed the legislative actions as being taken in the service of national unity. Yet there is no question that these amendments and related government actions have narrowed the field for political participation and contestation. A now disenfranchised opposition has been outmaneuvered. As new political candidates take their place, only time will tell whether a weakened parliament can maintain public support, or whether the security state will be further empowered in managing the fallout of disaffected constituents.

Kristin Smith Diwan is a senior resident scholar at the Arab Gulf States Institute in Washington.