Of optimists, realists & rationalists

July 24, 2013

Have you been feeling tired of politics lately? Then you should not feel guilty because this might just make you join the ever-expanding club that include almost every other person in the Arab world, in general, and in GCC. However, I would like to invite you to look at the positive side.

This rising interest in politics reflects the fruitful investment in education, the improving ability in making connections between socio-economic conditions and governance, and the cumulative awareness about public affairs among people in the Gulf. What is interesting here is that what happens in Kuwait does not stay in Kuwait, when it comes to political developments. The upcoming parliamentary elections on July 27 could give you a glimpse about future developments in the Gulf, for example, elections in Qatar and Bahrain expected by early 2014, elections in the Sultanate of Oman and UAE by the end of 2014, and the much-anticipated elections in 2015 in Saudi Arabia.

Who are the main actors/candidates?
On a daily basis, you might have heard three main kinds of views from your family, friends, colleagues, and even acquaintances. In Kuwait, you are likely to hear these views in a Diwaniyah, or open traditional majlis style extended family and friends gathering to discuss various matters, unique to Kuwait. As for the first view, all of us have family and friends who are self-styled pragmatists and realists, who focus on the process - not substance - on elections, not democracy per se. This group supports democracy in public yet is sceptical about in private. You will recognise them when you hear them say, “democracy does not work for us; people are not ready and we are tribal societies in the Gulf.” Some argue that pro-government groups identify more with this realist points of view. On the other hand, there is the second group - the optimists - who focus on the substance, in this case they believe free and fair elections are only meaningful when they bring democracy - rule of law, freedom of assembly and expression, free media, both traditional and alternative, and more civic participation. These optimists see elections are only meaningful when they bring society a step closer towards more rule of law, free media and alternative media, and eventually a parliamentary democracy. Some think that optimists tend to be pro-opposition groups. What is new and exciting is the third group that is emerging in the Gulf - the rationalists.

They are those who strongly believe that progress and prosperity comes to those working for it, by pursuing meaningful constructive civic participation. You probably know them as family members and friends who SWOT analyse almost everything, sometimes annoyingly. Rationalists believe that it is not enough to be optimistic about democracy, or pragmatist focusing on process, they argue that you should constructively assess your social responsibility how you can contribute to the progress of your country. As you can see rationalist views can be boring, and one could argue that this might explain the relative timid performance of these self-styled moderates to attract more voters than the other two louder and more polarising groups - the pro-government - and pro-opposition. Along with these three main groups of people, realists, optimists, and rationalists there is a claim that a fourth group exists. It calls itself the silent majority. This group prefers to be silent, despite this huge recent rising trend of self-expression. However, since they are silent it would not really be realistic to speculate what they really think let alone know what they believe in.

How come Kuwait endorses elections observation?
Now imagine the opportunity to experience the interaction between optimists, realists, and rationalists first hand, this is the opportunity I wish to share with you here as a member of the International Elections Observers Team. It is worth noting that Kuwait is one of the very few, less than third of the 22 countries of the Arab world, that supports a locally-led observers' team. This confidence and transparency is perhaps a result of the cumulative Kuwaiti democratic experiences, guarded by the 1962 constitution, and the outspoken Kuwaiti media, and its vibrant social media. It is worth noting that Kuwait has more than 200,000 active Twitter users, which makes it among the highest social media participation in the Arab world. Kuwait Transparency Society leads this observers' team, which is also endorsed by the Council of Ministers. The team is diverse and rich with around 30 specialists and interested observers from Kuwait, the Gulf and Arab countries, in addition to observers from Europe and the US, for the third time.

Why is Majlis al Ummah Significant?
For you to be able to appreciate the interactions between these three groups in full swing you could perhaps start with staying tuned, and witness this Saturday's parliamentary elections to elect members of the Kuwaiti Majlis al Ummah, or National Assembly, who will serve a term of four years. This 50-member unicameral, or one chamber, parliament might be small in numbers, in comparison to the parliaments around the world, yet it yields real legislative and regulatory powers, that directly or indirectly contributed to the fact that this is the fifth parliamentary elections in the past five years. Around 321 candidates, including eight women, will compete to convince the 439,715 eligible voters, 53.12 percent of whom are women, divided into five election districts since 2006, and voting on the basis of 'one man one vote', that they deserve the privilege to use these parliamentary powers under that dome of the famous Abdullah al Salem Hall, the home of the Kuwaiti parliament.

As you might expect with these powers come money, and sometimes merciless competition, similar and sometimes exceeding elections in other parts of the world. Kuwaiti election campaigns are among the most expensive in the Arab world, averaging at about 70,000 Kuwaiti Dinars (KDs) per campaign, and sometimes costing millions of KDs. Hence, that might come to you as no surprise, the Kuwaiti authorities have decided to enforce regulations in unprecedented manner. Two weeks prior to these elections, the crackdown included investigating at least 50 campaigner for alleged vote-buying.

Authorities also attempted to strictly enforce regulations banning illegal primaries and campaign advertising. However, the famously entrepreneurial campaigning mavericks, known here as the electoral keys, or mafatih intikhabiya, tend to find creative ways that bend regulations without breaking them, including extensively using social media to reach out to voters and convince them, sometimes by any means possible. It is worth noting that these elections comes following the landmark Kuwaiti constitutional court decision on May 16 which led to upholding the one man one vote Decree by the Emir, and declaring the election committee illegal paving the way for these elections. The controversy surrounding whether 'one man one vote' rule favours pro-government candidates has previously contributed to a boycott by pro-opposition groups, and led to around 40 per cent voter turnout in the previous elections. While some expect that the boycott and the fact that the elections are held in Ramadan may result in a low voter turnout, I would argue that this elections might witness a turnout between 50 to 60 percent, due to the aforementioned constitutional court decision that softened polarisation, and offered opportunity for eligible voters to opt more for being a part of the process to break the political stagnation and move development projects forward.

What are the chances of women candidates?
The outnumbered eight women candidates are hoping for a similar results of May 2009 elections when four women made it finally to Abdullah al Salem Hall, and the previous elections when three out of 13 women candidates made it, including the first woman tribal woman candidate who was appointed as Minister of Social Development. Perhaps women candidates' chances might improve, despite the decrease in number of candidates from 13 in previous elections to eight in this Saturday’s elections, given the fact that there are more women than men voters, and that there are seasoned former women parliamentarians, and former ministers, standing in this elections as well, and the subsequent increase in number of voters who realise the significance of a balanced representation in the parliament.

Why & what to observe?
If I learned one lesson from the four opportunities as a member of the International Elections Observers Team, it is that human beings seem to love a fair competition, as long as they are the winners, you will find this to be true whether you are observing free and fair elections in The Netherlands or Kuwait. This is why cherish this enriching experience to reinforce the importance of a free and fair competition. As there are no hundred percent clean and smooth elections your role is expected to include, honestly and in an unbiased manner to perform three main duties: first, observe the general atmosphere around the elections. Second, contribute to issuing the daily observation reports about the campaigns and elections, published on the official website of Kuwait Transparency Society about compliance with national regulations by candidates, voters, regulators, media, and general public. Third, recommend relevant regional and international best practices.

The strict Observers Manual and Code of Ethics ensure that you as an observer understand how to diligently perform these duties in a uniformed manner that adds great value to the legitimacy and credibility to the electoral substance and process. In short, in three days you will witness not only a dull parliamentary elections, but a historic competition between candidates who optimists, realists, and rationalists who will take one step forward towards balancing their political ambitions and revive the aspirations of their constituents in a Majlis Ummah that is able to satisfy the aspirations of the three groups. First, reach meaningful win-win-win compromises which is a cornerstone of democracy.

Second, it serves its full term without being dissolved, which restores legitimacy and credibility in electoral process, hence in civic participation. Perhaps more importantly, the biggest task of the upcoming majlis is to deliver real positive impact to all relevant stakeholders they are accountable to, which is the essence of a rational assessment. No matter who wins in this Saturday’s elections, self-styled realists, optimists or rationalists, I would consider the real winner to be the society, for this elections could be just the breakthrough needed to break the deadlock and achieve progress in its development plans.