* Opposition includes youth groups, politicians
* Election boycott brings diverse groups together
* Youth movement influential on the street
By Sylvia Westall
KUWAIT, Nov 28 A disparate collection of youth
activists, Islamists and populist politicians has achieved rare
unity in agreeing to boycott Kuwait parliamentary elections on
Dec. 1 but the real challenge to the loose coalition is still to
Political loyalties are ill-defined and can change as often
as the parliament in Kuwait, which is holding its fifth election
since mid-2006. All it takes to be part of the "opposition" in a
country where political parties are banned is to show a
willingness to confront the government.
"We always come across this problem, this issue of the
definition," said Ghanem al-Najjar, professor of political
science at Kuwait University.
"When we talk about the opposition in Kuwait, it does not
really mean the opposition in the real sense."
While the current movement can certainly claim to the title
and is holding together for now, there is little unanimity of
purpose and a great deal of uncertainty over what to do next,
both for fear of conflict with the ruling authorities and for
what it might mean for the fragile unity of the group itself.
Protests that started in October were aimed at ruler Sheikh
Sabah al-Ahmad al-Sabah's decision to reduce the number of votes
per citizen from four to one. Marches that took place outside a
designated protest area were forcibly broken up by police using
tear gas and coloured smoke.
Sheikh Sabah says his emergency decree, issued six weeks
before the election, was meant to fix flaws in the electoral
system for the sake of "security and stability" in the oil
producer and U.S. ally.
Critics say the new rules are an attempt to skew the
election in favour of pro-government candidates; they say the
four-vote system enabled candidates to form political
allegiances during campaigns by recommending that supporters
cast their additional ballots for their allies.
In the absence of parties, such alliances, which are often
based on tribal ties, become crucial.
Apart from protesting against the new voting rules,
activists have rallied against wider issues such as corruption,
the accountability of government ministers and elected
officials, a lack of infrastructure development, and broader
reform demands. But there is far less unity on these topics.
One thing most youth protesters and opposition politicians
agree on is that they do not seek an Arab Spring-style
revolution, but reform.
"There are forces in the opposition which are seeking deeper
political changes towards a (full) parliamentary system," said
writer and established activist Ahmed al-Deyain.
"Political reform is a main element for many of the
opposition forces, but I cannot say that there is a consensus on
this subject," said Deyain, general coordinator of the National
Front for the Protection of the Constitution, a pro-democracy
A youth protest group organised online has called for
another march on the eve of the election under the slogan "The
Nation's Dignity". But some opposition politicians are against
more marches, and say that the election boycott is sufficient.
WHO ARE THEY?
One of the world's richest countries per capita, Kuwait is
the Gulf Arab region's most democratic state.
Parliament confirms governments, passes laws presented by
the cabinet and oversees the performance of various ministries.
Lawmakers also have the right to summon ministers for
questioning over policies.
But the ultimate political and economic power is in the
ruling family's hands. The emir has the final say in state
affairs and can veto laws and dissolve the assembly, and members
of his family hold the top cabinet portfolios.
Over the past six years, tensions between parliament and
government have intensified, leading to repeated dissolutions of
the legislature and delays to economic reform and investment.
Those tensions came to a boil after elections in February
when opposition MPs took roughly two-thirds of the 50 seats and
formed a bloc.
The self-declared opposition politicians include moderate
Islamists, some affiliated with the Muslim Brotherhood, and a
handful of Salafi MPs, who adhere to Saudi Arabia's austere
version of Islam.
The bloc also included around five populist politicians,
some of whom draw support from Kuwait's powerful and generally
more socially conservative tribes and who highlight issues such
as wages and housing. One of these men is Musallam al-Barrak, a
former MP arrested in October after making comments deemed
critical of the emir at a protest rally.
As a bloc, the politicians lobbied against corruption and
focussed on security, such as the length of police detentions or
a plan to introduce the death penalty for blasphemy.
With the boycott, the politicians have gone further and
joined with youth groups who include pro-democracy activists,
moderate Islamists and supporters of the opposition MPs.
The youth, who have won the support from some of Kuwait's
influential academics and political commentators, are leading
calls for reforms to the political system. Many want an elected
prime minister, with top cabinet posts held by people outside of
the ruling family. Like the MPs, they have rallied against
corruption and criticised a lack of economic development.
Others have turned even on some opposition MPs, accusing
them of using the parliament to their own benefit rather than
pushing for political change.
With their leading role in the protest marches and their
mobilisation of support through social media such as Twitter,
the youth movement is becoming the more important opposition
force, said Kuwait University professor of political science
"It has increasingly gained control of the Kuwaiti political
scene and has clearly put pressure on parliament and the
traditional opposition, which is more affected by the movement
than affecting it," he wrote in a piece carried by several
Arabic language newspapers this month.
At a protest rally on Nov. 12, young protesters expressed
frustration that opposition politicians were not being more
"We are here with more demands," said electrical engineer
Mazen al-Otabi, 26, as he walked away in disgust from a speech
by an opposition politician.
The speaker was backing the boycott but pledging allegiance
to the ruling authorities, which Otabi said was contradictory.
"How can we question the system like this?" he asked.
Some Gulf observers have suggested the Muslim Brotherhood
has played a role in the conflict, pointing to its growing
regional influence. Kuwait University's Ghabra rejected this.
"The Muslim Brotherhood is not the movement's engine ... it
is merely one of the many opposition forces," he wrote. A group
affiliated to the Brotherhood has been part of Kuwaiti political
life for years.
The Arab Spring has given the existing opposition movement
additional steam, however, Kuwait-based diplomats say, putting
pressure on the ruling family to reform.
With the opposition MPs opting out on Dec. 1, the incoming
parliament will include many political neophytes, and it remains
to be seen whether it will follow similar policies as its
predecessor and challenge the government, or go along with the
cabinet and risk being seen as a rubber stamp.
If the new MPs take up some of the opposition themes, this
may have a calming effect, diplomats said. But an inexperienced
assembly elected on a low turnout that shows no backbone may
aggravate tensions on the street, they said.
The future of the opposition movement depends on whether
there is a theme that can unite it after the election.
But the underlying dilemma remains: as long as the ban on
political parties exists and the opposition does not have a
policymaking role, it lacks the ability to come up with coherent
and unified platforms, Kuwait University's Najjar said.
"Every point, if you want to look deeper, you will see the
same thing: differences over differences over differences," he