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Kuwait Feature: The Politics of a "Sinking Ship" (Al-Sumait)

Emir of KuwaitFahed Al-Sumait writes for Jadaliyya:

On 18 June, the Emir of Kuwait, Shaykh Sabah al-Ahmed al-Sabah, suspended parliament for a month to head off an escalating row between the cabinet and parliament, the latter of which was about to publicly grill the interior minister over the country’s citizenship laws. Two days later, the constitutional court stepped in with its own ruling that declared the sitting (but newly suspended) parliament to be illegal and called for the reinstatement of the previous parliament.

The court’s rationale was that an Emiri decree this past February — which called for elections after the previous parliament was dissolved in December — had been unconstitutional, thereby nullifying the elections that followed. Twenty-four parliamentary members resigned in protest, at least seventeen of whom also belonged to the reinstated (previous) parliament, a move that could prevent the old assembly from reconvening. The court’s legally binding move was unprecedented, but the ensuing chaos is not entirely out of character with the continuous state of turmoil that has characterized Kuwaiti politics of late.

The back-and-forth dynamics may seem confusing, but when they are understood as tactics in a larger battle for power, a clearer picture begins to emerge. In short, conflicts within the royal family, as well as between the royal family and opposition forces in society, are being played out publicly through the country’s political institutions. It is hard to say if anyone is actually winning, but the country as a whole certainly seems to be losing. There have been seven cabinet reshuffles and four parliamentary dissolutions in just six years, with a fifth parliament likely before the year’s end. Such gridlock has hampered much-needed economic and infrastructure reforms. Additionally, it has made many Kuwaiti citizens frustrated with the country’s increasingly dysfunctional political system, and has provided a veneer of credence to some regional claims that democracy is a dangerous game with which to experiment....

In the short term, it is unlikely that the reinstated parliament will have a quorum or the legitimacy to convene, causing new elections to be held sometime after Ramadan. During the interim period, the government will try to implement development packages and reforms in the absence of an obstructionist parliament. However, once a new parliament is elected, the regular grillings and constant deadlock are almost destined to continue. This is especially likely if the elections result in another opposition-strong parliament, which is a distinct possibility. As the battle grinds on into the mid-term, all sides will engage in competing claims of democratic (particularly constitutional) legitimacy for their actions. Much of the population will be continually frustrated with the system and the risk of political apathy will only grow.

Ultimately, these systemic dysfunctions will need hearty doses of capitulation, concession, and coercion from political actors on all sides if they are to be resolved. What the specifics will look like is anyone’s guess, but the outcomes of such politicking in the next couple of years will have significant implications for Kuwait’s future.

Will more power be given to the elected assembly in a manner affording greater democracy to questionable democrats, or will the royal family wrest back greater control over the system? Could ceding more power to the public assembly create a kind of “collateral democratization” that might ultimately benefit both the Kuwaiti public and the royal family? Are these goals even compatible and, if so, what would such a system actually look like in practice? Are there alternative concessions, such as granting space for political parties, increasing the number of parliamentary seats, or expanding the cabinet’s portfolio, that may improve the country’s political system without allowing one branch of government to be held hostage so easily by the other? These are some of the real questions lurking under the surface of last week’s events.

For now, it is clear that the current political system is neither monarchial nor democratic enough to exploit the benefits of either. The lesson appears to be that a country cannot balance power effectively between anappointed cabinet and an elected parliament. In an absolute monarchy, the king calls the shots and appoints who he wants to help him govern. By contrast, in a fully democratic system, competing ideologies vie for political dominance through various electoral systems, and the government branches function as a system of checks and balances. But in Kuwait, where the systems are mixed, the executive and legislative branches are inherently locked in a power struggle.

This almost guarantees perpetual confrontation rather than some degree of symbiosis. The hybrid approach does not appear to be a formula for effective governance, but may instead be a structural defect that will continue to foster the kind of political chaos for which Kuwait is increasingly known. It could be argued that the real question going forward is not how Kuwait will navigate through the current storm, but rather when (or if) it will be able to effectively repair its sinking ship.

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