How did Kuwait — which boasts that its democratic system is the best in the region — get to its current status?
Parliament is suspended. There is a deadlock between the government and the opposition. Sectarian and factional debates prevail in the street and media. All of this comes on the 22nd anniversary of the Iraqi invasion (August 2, 1990), after which “a new and better Kuwait was created,” as some Kuwaitis say.
Development in Kuwait has never been worse than it is today, at least as some in the opposition see it. Although the price of a Kuwaiti oil barrel has reached almost $110 and the 2011 budget surplus has exceeded $16 billion, there are continuous complaints about the deterioration of public services. This deterioration was evidenced by power cuts in some suburbs of the capital during Ramadan during a summer where temperatures reached 50 degrees Celsius [122 Fahrenheit].
Regarding problems with infrastructure, the foundations for a hospital and a sports stadium — both to be named after former Emir Sheikh Jaber al-Ahmad — were been built more than 7 years ago. However, both have yet to be officially inaugurated, as is the case with many other projects. Moreover, 97,000 families are awaiting housing services in a country whose population is less than 1.2 million. Kuwaitis lament the fact that news of mechanical issues affecting Kuwait Airways, a pioneering institution in the Gulf and the region, today top the local news.
The opposition argues that corruption and government mismanagement are two main reasons for the country’s decline. The authorities and state media say that the abuse of democracy and freedoms by opposition leaders and parties has plunged Kuwait into continuous crises, which distract successive governments from making achievements.
In January 2006, Kuwait overcame a serious political crisis when the Emir Sheikh Jaber al-Ahmad passed away at a time when Crown Prince Sheikh Saad al-Abdullah was not healthy enough to rule. The ruling Sabah family needed the support of the National Assembly (the parliament) to find a solution to this problem. Both the pro-government and opposition MPs were understanding of the circumstances, and unanimously endorsed Sheikh Sabah al-Ahmad as Emir of the country. They later supported his choice of Sheikh Nawaf al-Ahmad as crown prince.
But real problems began when Sheikh Nasser Mohammad al-Ahmad was selected as prime minister. The opposition did not get along with him, and objected to many of his domestic and foreign policies, particularly the dispute over the election law and the distribution of constituencies. The opposition also accused Sheikh Nasser of appointing corrupt ministers and paying bribes to MPs. The opposition – namely the Islamist deputies – saw that Sheikh Nasser’s government was too complacent with the Iranian regime at the expense of Kuwait’s relations with other Gulf countries. Nasser’s government reinforced this line by allying with the Shiite minority, whose deputies supported Sheikh Nasser in the face of opposition.
After seven governments and recurrent crises that led to dissolving parliament four times, the opposition succeeded in removing Sheikh Nasser as prime minister on November 28, 2011. Nasser was replaced by Sheikh Jaber Mubarak al-Sabah, who was seen as an acceptable figure by the opposition, since the Emir — after appointing Al-Sabah — dissolved the elected parliament in 2009, or the “paid council,” as the opposition calls it. The opposition accuses MPs loyal to Sheikh Nasser al-Mohammad’s government of receiving bribes.
On February 2, a new parliament was elected, of which the opposition won 35 of its 50 seats, a ruling majority. Even with the addition of 15 ministers in line with the constitution, the opposition retains a margin of votes that would give it the right to veto any law and the ability to overthrow any minister, or even the government, at any time.
After being assigned to head the ministers council, Sheikh Jaber al-Mubarak sought to accommodate the opposition in his government. He was very close to accepting the opposition’s proposal to appoint nine deputies as ministers, so that the majority of the opposition would be represented in the government. This would have achieved a level of harmony between the two sides never witnessed in Kuwait before. However, political figures and alliances within the ruling family had reservations concerning this approach. As a result, Sheikh Jaber offered the opposition three seats, which they declined.
Despite all of the aforementioned, the first few weeks of the 2012 parliament saw a better relationship between the opposition and government, although two ministers were forced to resign after opposition figures threatened to grill them at parliament. In June of this year, while the parliament was investigating two important cases related to corruption in the previous government, the Constitutional Court took a shocking decision to annul the procedures related to the decree requiring the dissolution of the 2009 parliament in December. This would imply the return of the same council, the “paid council,” and would invalidate the 2012 council with the opposition majority.
The court's decision drew unprecedented criticism against the judiciary, especially from opposition figures who spoke of “political pressure on the judiciary,” and demanded that they “raise the political bar” and establish a constitutional monarchy which includes a government that is fully elected by parliament. But the most important move made by the opposition was its refusal to participate in the 2009 parliament, which attempted to convene twice during the month of Ramadan without achieving a quorum. This prompted its speaker, Jassem al-Kharafi, to send a letter to the emir stating that the assembly was unable to carry out its duties. The opposition demanded that the government issue a draft decree to the emir requiring the dissolution of the 2009 assembly and calling for new elections.
This volatile political situation was further exacerbated in mid-August, when the new government released a memorandum to the Constitutional Court challenging the integrity and fairness of the current electoral districts system. The law on electoral districts was approved by parliament in 2005. It divides Kuwait into five constituencies, each with ten seats, and gives voters the right to choose four candidates. Minister of Information Sheikh Mohammed al-Abdullah al-Mubarak said that the goal behind referring the law on the five constituencies to the Constitutional Court is to “spare the state any legal chaos or political exhaustion caused by a wrong situation, which might create a legislative vacuum.”
The opposition rejected this measure. Some deputies said that the authorities “want to impose a different distribution of constituencies, which aims to eliminate the largest possible number of opposition MPs, taking advantage of the difference in the distribution of social segments across different areas of Kuwait.” The “opposition majority” issued a statement on August 11 accusing the authorities of “carrying out a coup against the constitutional system of government.” The statement called for “activating the model of constitutional democracy” by creating a fully elected government, which the opposition notes is allowed by the current constitution. Since the constitution was adopted in 1963, it has been customary for the emir to appoint the government. The opposition called on its supporters to hold a new wave of demonstrations before the end of this month at al-Iradah Square adjacent to the Kuwaiti National Assembly building.
The opposition warned the judiciary not to give in to political pressure or “become a party to a political rivalry.” It argued that this “is an extreme insult to the independence of the judiciary and an infringement on its position.” The opposition called on the Constitutional Court to “distance itself from the position the political authorities are trying to plunge it in.”
However, the Emir Sheikh Sabah al-Ahmad defended the judiciary, stressing that it is independent. In his annual speech on the occasion of Ramadan – which was made one day after the opposition issued its statement – he said: “We thank God that we live in a constitutional and institutional state, protected by laws and regulations that ensure a dignified life for every member of the community. We proudly renew and reiterate our praise for the judicial authority and its full independence.” He warned against “wrong political practices pursued by some, which contribute to hindering development in the country, impede the implementation of reform and required development, and disperse efforts and distract attention from directing all efforts towards building and developing the nation.” He also talked about the regional situation and threats surrounding Kuwait.
While Kuwait is once again witnessing demonstrations and protests, observers have noticed an increase in demands for substantial political change by Kuwaiti youth movements affected by the atmosphere of the “Arab Spring.” The loud tone of this movement can be seen on websites such as Twitter and others, which have become a major tool for the circulation of news and sharp political criticism. Today, it has become common for the public prosecutor and security agencies to arrest “tweeters” in cases where they have “targeted” high-ranking political figures.
Opposition MPs acknowledge that this youth movement now imposes its agenda even on the “opposition majority,” since “what used to be seen just a few months ago as firm youth demands, such as the establishment of a constitutional emirate, has now become a formal commitment for us now.”