KUWAIT CITY – The message from Kuwait's emir is blunt heading into this week's parliamentary elections: Opposition factions should express dissent in the legislature, and not in the streets. The response from the opposition is equally uncompromising: We're not satisfied with what we can accomplish through parliament, so we're boycotting the vote.
There is little middle ground as Kuwait stumbles toward its second election this year for the most politically empowered parliament in the Gulf Arab states, which serves as a check on the emir, Sheik Sabah Al Ahmed Al Sabah. Violent protests and crackdowns on activists — until recently rare in Kuwait — have contributed to the high-stakes tension.
The outcome Saturday is certain to hand the ruling family and its allies a near-sweep of friendly lawmakers. Yet that is not necessarily good news for the stability of a country that has ricocheted from one political crisis to the next for nearly a year, including street clashes between security forces and an opposition coalition that ranges from hardline Islamists to youth activists.
For years, that legislature has served as a forum for the opposition to press their demands. But with the opposition's boycott likely to take them into self-exile from the political system, the worry is their new soapbox will be the street demonstrations like those that have engulfed many other Arab states in the past two years.
The potential fallout goes well beyond its borders. Any major upheavals in OPEC member Kuwait have potential repercussions on oil prices and the Pentagon's plans to use the nation as its hub for ground forces in efforts to counter the growth of Iran's military.
Gulf Arab rulers have so far ridden out the Arab Spring uprisings through a combination of factors including crackdowns and payouts to buy off potential dissenters. But the Gulf's biggest unrest by far — a 21-month-old revolt against Bahrain's Western-allied monarchy — shows no sign of easing and poses some the same quandaries as Kuwait for Washington: the need to maintain critical security alliances, but also to pay attention to shifting political forces in the region.
"There is a danger that the tensions between a ruling family (in Kuwait) intent on preserving its power and privilege and an energized opposition bent on security meaningful reform might escalate into open confrontation," said Kristian Coates-Ulrichsen, a research fellow who follows Gulf affairs at the London School of Economics.
"The example of Bahrain shows how everyone loses out in this scenario," he added, "but that alone is no guarantee that Kuwaitis can or will pull back from the brink."
Kuwait's protest alliance is held together by claims that the emir Al Sabah overstepped his authority by changing voting laws in an apparent attempt to undermine opposition and reformist electoral chances. Beyond that, there are a wide range of demands from all the different factions involved in the boycott, from Islamists wanting a greater say in the government to liberals wanting more openness in general.
The showdowns take forms similar to those in other parts of the region: clampdowns on Web activists and arrest sweeps against perceived backers of the Muslim Brotherhood, an Islamist group that now leads Egypt and has a resurgent profile since the Arab Spring.
Last week, Kuwait's Interior Ministry announced the arrest of four people on charges of insulting the emir with posts on Twitter. Similar arrests have taken place across the Gulf and, earlier this month, the United Arab Emirates imposed new Internet laws that can bring jail time for Web posts deemed offensive to rulers.
Kuwaiti authorities also have echoed fears from other Gulf palaces over what they view as expanding threats from the Muslim Brotherhood. Dubai's police chief, Lt. Gen. Dahi Khalfan Tamim, has warned of an "international plot" to overthrow the Gulf rulers.
The Islamists in Kuwait — while a powerful force — insist they are a distinctive, homegrown group that does not seek to topple the ruling system but wants a greater say in how the country is run. Their critics worry that this means a push toward stricter Islamic codes such as limits on non-Muslim worship or censoring artists and writers in one of the most politically open societies in the Gulf.
The past year has brought almost nonstop — and highly complex — political turmoil.
Islamists and their tribal allies won parliament elections in February and immediately pushed for greater clout in policy-making affairs. The Constitutional Court later disbanded parliament amid claims of flaws in the electoral district map, and reinstated the former government-friendly chamber from elections in 2009. That body, however, never managed to convene a session.
To further complicate things: The emir stunned the nation by wiping out the country's unusual four-votes-per-person system in favor of the standard one vote. Opponents say the new formula dilutes the ability of opposition groups to forge alliances and will increase the risks of vote buying and bribery.
"We will have puppetry, not a real parliament," said Mohammed al-Hatlani, a former lawmaker supporting the election boycott.
Liberal and youth groups — while deeply opposed to the Islamist agenda — have joined the boycott drive as a way to press for their Arab Spring-inspired demands for greater political and social freedoms. The unexpected alliance with Islamists and conservative tribes has startled even veterans of Kuwait's pugnacious politics.
Abdullatif al-Duaij, a prominent Kuwait liberal figure now living in the U.S., worries that fellow liberals looking for more openness have "lost their compass" by siding with the Islamists and others pushing the boycott.
"Today it's either you vote or you don't," he said. "There is nothing in between."
A series of protests and street clashes in recent months led the emir to order a ban on political gatherings of more than 20 people. In a message last week, he tried both threats and patriot appeals to cool down tensions.
"It is a great tragedy to have calls to take to the street," the emir said in comments carried by the official Kuwait News Agency. "Why the chaos and riots? Why the screaming and wailing and disrupting the business of the state and harming the interests of the people?"
It's all likely to leave Kuwait even more politically fractured and the new parliament facing challenges over its legitimacy.
In most of the Gulf, a parliament under pressure would matter little since elected bodies have very limited powers. Kuwait, however, stands out. Its 50-seat parliament has wide authority to pass laws and question — or even dismiss — members of the government.
Opposition lawmakers have publicly accused top officials, including members of the ruling family, of charges such as corruption and attempts to muzzle dissent. But even many protesters were stunned last month when an opposition leader, Musallam al-Barrack, broke taboos and openly denounced the emir. He was later arrested.
"He crossed all the red lines and shattered the boundaries of permissible opposition," said the researcher Coates-Ulrichsen. "The experience from North Africa and elsewhere in the Arab Spring shows that once these barriers are broken it is impossible to reconstruct them."