22.04.2024 Author: Viktor Mikhin

Kuwait: New Elections Are Over, but Old Problems Remain

Kuwait: New Elections Are Over, but Old Problems Remain

In early April, Kuwait held its first elections since Sheikh Meshal al-Ahmad Al Sabah took power late last year, determined to implement economic reforms after a protracted standoff between government appointees and elected parliamentarians.

The new emir sharply criticized the National Assembly (parliament) and the government in his first speech to parliament since taking office in December, saying that their actions are “detrimental to the interests of the country and its people.” His reformist approach, while lacking tolerance for political wrangling, seems aimed at pushing the small Gulf Arab state to catch up with its neighbors in an effort to deny its economy complete reliance on oil revenues alone. Years of feuding between appointed governments and an elected parliament have prevented budget reform, including a debt law that would allow Kuwait to access international markets and reduce its heavy reliance on oil revenues.

It should be recalled that the Kuwaiti Parliament has more influence than similar bodies in other Gulf monarchies. Political deadlock, however, led to endless cabinet reshuffles and the dissolution of parliament, paralyzing policy-making, but the new emir prevailed. Sheikh Ahmed Al-Nawaf’s government resigned hours after the emir’s December speech, and Sheikh Mohammad Sabah Al-Salem Al-Sabah formed a new government with new ministers of oil, finance, foreign affairs, interior and defense.

But all that changed in February when parliament was instructed to respond to the emir’s speech, a common practice, and vote to approve a law providing for Sheikh Meshal’s annual salary of about $160 million. In a public appearance, Abdulkarim Al Qandari, a member of parliament, made comments that some interpreted as criticism of the new emir, although Al Qandari later said he was simply “defending parliament and the people.” Shortly thereafter, the new emir issued a decree dissolving the parliament, saying it had violated the constitution by using inappropriate terms in addressing the ruler. This dissolution of parliament paved the way for new elections and Al Qandari was re-elected with the most votes of any candidate in his district.

It should be said that due to the high turnover of personnel in the parliament and frequent resignations of cabinet members, officials have little time to implement their programs. While many Kuwaitis pride themselves on their relatively greater political participation and freedom of expression, their country lags behind the rest of the Gulf in infrastructure development and economic diversification, despite having a sovereign wealth fund that is one of the largest in the world. Authoritarian elites across the Gulf, as well as some ordinary citizens, have long argued that Kuwait’s economic stagnation is a cautionary tale about the pitfalls of democracy, while the gleaming skyscrapers and bustling ports of Dubai, the Gulf capital, demonstrate the benefits of “iron discipline.”

But many Kuwaitis insist that limiting political rights will not solve their problems, arguing that their system needs room to evolve. “We need more mature checks and balances that take into account levers to reduce tensions and anger,” says Bader Al-Saif, associate professor of history at Kuwait University. He called for a national dialogue that would lead to constitutional amendments that would allow the country’s legislative and executive branches to work together more effectively.

Quite naturally, Kuwait is far from a full democracy: its ruler is a hereditary monarch, political parties are banned, and the emir has the power to dissolve parliament – the reason for the current snap election. Frequent deadlocks between the parliament and the executive have led to political upheaval. But across the Middle East, where many states are becoming increasingly authoritarian, Kuwait, political analysts say, represents a rare alternative, having some elements of democracy even after the Arab Spring uprisings across the region were crushed more than a decade ago and some countries, including Tunisia for example, began to revert to authoritarianism. Casting their votes and expressing frustration with the political chaos in their country, Kuwaitis, especially the youth, after the elections said they hoped to see real change in the emirate’s politics and economy.

Abdulaziz Al-Anjeri, founder and CEO of Reconnaissance Research, told Reuters that the task of the day was to focus on accelerating reforms rather than negotiating with the opposition, political groups and grassroots organizations. “The focus is on progress on critical issues instead of wasting time on delaying tactics and playing ping-pong with parliament on issues where the constitution clearly divides powers,” Al-Anjeri said. “There will be no tolerance for any parliamentary action perceived by the authorities as a clear violation of the principle of separation of powers. Likewise, there will be zero tolerance for any government official involved in corruption or willful mismanagement.”

The National Assembly is a legislative body with the power to pass and block laws, question ministers and bring motions of no confidence against both ministers and the entire government. All of this gives parliament in Kuwait more democratic foundations than other Gulf monarchies, but often creates the risk of political gridlock. Two hundred candidates participated in the election, the lowest number in more than five decades, and the number of voters was estimated at 835,000. They were running for the 50-seat parliament in Kuwait, a Gulf country that is one of the world’s largest oil exporters. The election results showed that the vast majority of incumbents retained their seats, with the exception of a few new faces and a few candidates from past parliaments. Authorities said turnout was 62 percent – higher than many expected for an election held during the holy month of Ramadan, when Muslims fast from dawn to dusk.

Among those who ran and won in the last election was former parliament speaker Marzouq Al-Ghanim, an influential politician representing the country’s business community and a critic of the ruling Sabah family. Apparently, it is he, with his extensive experience of working in parliament and communicating with representatives of the ruling family, who will lead the main core of the opposition. Political analysts say that in these elections, the opposition has retained a majority, which will lead to continued political deadlock and a number of problems facing the emirate remaining unresolved.

The Emir also undertook a series of maneuvers and immediately after the official results of the vote were announced, accepted the resignation of the government and reappointed his nephew Sheikh Nasser Mohammad Al Ahmad Al Sabah as prime minister. Within two weeks, the prime minister must submit a cabinet of ministers to the head of state for approval. However, the candidates for the key posts of defense, foreign and interior ministers are already known – these positions are traditionally held by representatives of the Sabah family.

Many political scientists and especially economists are closely following the developments in this small emirate, believing that the future policy of Kuwait will determine the price of oil and, consequently, the state of the world economy. At the same time, they say they are not sure what direction it will take.  “We hope that the next parliament will see cooperation between the legislative and executive branches,” Al-Watan newspaper wrote, adding that this will help ensure that the interests of the people are taken into account. Daniel Tavana, Associate Professor of Political Science at Penn State University, expressed concern that the government’s lack of strategy or vision has made “the electoral contest somewhat meaningless and, for many citizens, exhausting.”

Be that as it may, it is quite clear that much will depend on the dialogue between the parliament and the government, largely composed of members of the Sabah family, in determining Kuwait’s future. But whether this dialogue will take place is the question, and no one has an answer.


Viktor Mikhin, corresponding member of RANS, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook

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