The mass resignation of the Kuwaiti government on 17 March and the emir’s subsequent decision to dissolve parliament two days later may have been sudden, but it should not have been a surprise. A political malaise has enveloped the state since its liberation from Iraq 17 years ago.
This has increased over the past two years, since Sheikh Nasser Mohammed al-Ahmed al-Sabah became prime minister. With three different governments during this period, it has grown increasingly apparent that a wholesale change in the political system is required if such a situation is not to be repeated.
The Council of Ministers (cabinet) resignation letter clearly lays out where it feels the blame lies. “There has been disorder in the relationship between the government and the National Assembly [parliament] and a deviation in the concept of parliamentary representation,” the letter says. “This is evident from what we have lately witnessed in attempts to undermine our national unity, in addition to practices of creating crises and violating parliamentary norms.”
In most countries, governments can work well with parliaments because the composition of the legislature reflects the cabinet. But in Kuwait’s case, the executive is dominated by the Al-Sabah family, and the key position of prime minister is appointed by the emir. As the elected parliament and civil society has grown stronger over the years, its opposition to government policy has increased.
In the latest crisis, the row was triggered by parliament’s insistence on holding a debate on increasing public sector workers’ pay by a further KD50 ($185) a month. The government had already agreed to a KD120 ($444) a month pay rise in February and was resisting any further wage increase, saying it would place undue pressure on the state’s budget. Faced with the prospect of such a measure being passed, the government resigned to avoid a vote.
“There are a few MPs who just want to cause trouble,” says Ali al-Foodari, a retired general and biographer of Emir Sheikh Sabah al-Ahmed al-Sabah. “But in reality, the last pay rise was sufficient, and if pay increases any more it will just lead to more price increases.”
The government’s sudden resignation comes despite a marked improvement in relations between the executive and parliament in recent months. The approval of the new tax and build-operate-transfer laws in December, plus the pay increases earlier this year, had led some to speculate that the coming year would be much more politically productive.
“Since the emir met with each of the factions in parliament late last year and told them they had to co-operate and that we had to all work under the umbrella of the constitution, there has been a marked improvement,” says Abdelwahab al-Haroon, a former MP and leading liberal.
This view was underlined by events following the assassination of Hezbollah commander Imad al-Mughniyeh in Damascus in February. After his death, several hundred of Kuwait’s Shia community, which represents about one-third of the local population, demonstrated against his murder. The Sunni majority was concerned because Al-Mughniyeh is widely believed to have been the mastermind behind the hijacking of a Kuwait Airways flight to Bangkok in 1988, when two Kuwaiti passengers were killed. He was also alleged to have overseen a failed assassination attempt in 1985 on the then emir, Sheikh Jaber al-Sabah, in retaliation for Kuwait’s financial support to Baghdad during the Iraq-Iran war.
The government clamped down hard on the Shia protests and arrested several of its leaders, including two serving MPs and one former parliamentarian. The move was welcomed by the Sunni-dominated parliament, which had persistently accused the government of appeasing Kuwait’s Shias.
“There was always a large amount of criticism on the government for being soft with Shias and collaborating with them,” says Mustafa Alani, senior adviser and director of security at the Dubai-based Gulf Research Centre. “So the government’s hardline stance on the demonstrations was appreciated.”
The unity did not last and as MEED went to press, Sheikh Sabah, who had to call short a private visit to Morocco to deal with the current crisis, had some crucial decisions to make.
The emir, who has the final say in Kuwaiti politics, ordered parliament to be dissolved and fresh elections called on 17 May. This will be the first poll under the new elections law, which provides for just five constituencies instead of the current 25. Most analysts predict this will produce fewer tribal MPs as the size of the electorate for each constituency will be larger, negating the impact of vote buying.
Tribal MPs have often been key supporters of the government, and with fewer in parliament, the executive will be able to count on even less support than today, a factor of which the ruling family will be well aware. “The next parliament will be less tribal, but contain more [anti-government] Islamists, meaning the government will be weaker,” says Alani. “Can you paper over the old cracks? I don’t know, but sooner or later a crisis will re-emerge.”
This is not necessarily a bad thing, however. “The new law is much better,” says Al-Haroon. “Enlarging the number of voters will allow people to vote according to manifestos and ideas rather than personal and tribal relationships. New MPs will vote on legislation based on its qualities, not to please people within their electoral districts.”
Had the emir not dissolved parliament, several other options could have been invoked, including creating a new government by reshuffling ministers and bringing in some new faces. However, this would have been unacceptable to parliament, unless its members were to have a greater say in its formation.
Another option was for Sheikh Sabah to uncon-stitutionally suspend parliament and rule by decree, as former emirs did for five years from 1976 and six years from 1986. Such a move would be immensely unpopular, and MPs say they would take to the streets if it were to occur.
In any case, Sheikh Sabah is known to support the principle of parliamentary democracy and is considered to be against such a move - although several other powerful family members are known to be in favour of it.
What is more, he owes much of his legitimacy to a parliament that approved his rule in early 2006 when it became clear that the next in line, Sheikh Saad al-Salem al-Sabah, was too frail to take over.
Whatever happens, Kuwait needs political stability. The state has simply not been able to keep pace with the economic reforms and development of its Gulf neighbours, mainly because of the political and bureaucratic stagnation. It urgently needs to upgrade its infrastructure and push ahead with a raft of projects, such as the stalled Bubiyan and Failaka island developments.
In the hydrocarbons sector, the country will need parliamentary blessing for the series of enhanced technical services agreements Kuwait Oil Company hopes to sign with international oil companies.
Project Kuwait, the state’s landmark upstream initiative, has been delayed for more than a decade because of parliamentary resistance, which has had a negative effect on the state’s image. It will also be looking to get its long-delayed privatisation programme approved so it can sell off state-owned companies. Equally important is approval for the state’s five-year development plan.
“Some deputies are uneasy when it comes to reforms of the economy because when they talk about reform they believe it gives more chance for the private sector to dominate, and less power for them,” says Al-Haroon.
The best solution may be the creation of a government that reflects the popular vote. This would necessitate the formal creation of political parties, which is currently prohibited, but would ensure that legislation is not continually blocked by differing political viewpoints.
It would mean, however, that the ruling family would have to give up the prime minister position as well as the key ministries.
At this point, it does not seem to be something it will countenance.
It is too early to tell whether a new stage has been reached in Kuwait’s political evolution. It is clear that several deep-rooted issues will not be resolved overnight.
But, as ever, co-operation between parliament and government will be key. That is the price of democracy, and a lesson that must be absorbed if it is to regain its position as the pre-eminent Gulf state.
The dissolution of parliament means new elections will be held in May.