Wednesday, April 02, 2008

We May Learn From Kuwait's Politics

False malaise of Kuwait's politics
By Abdullah Alshayji

On March 19, the Emir of the State of Kuwait used his constitutional rights and suspended the Kuwaiti National Assembly (the Parliament) for the second time in less than two years because of the endless bickering and acrimonious relations which dominated the relationship between the two branches of the political system.
Such tense relations resulted in a record number of interpolations for seven ministers. It also set a record for the number of ministerial resignations and paralysis of the Kuwaiti political system since the fall of 2006.
Over the past 50 years, Kuwait has been a prototype for what happens to a tiny entity which has mastered how to harness its oil wealth and survive in a hostile environment and put to great use its oil wealth to benefit its own little population and share it through mega development projects with less fortunate countries and peoples.
Kuwait has implemented a reverse of the adage of "no representation without taxation" to "representation without taxation" which set the trend and became a harbinger for much of the region to look upon and emulate as an indigenous prototype for what these countries, leaderships and intellectuals would like to see implemented in their own societies.
Kuwait was not interested to serve as a model, but found itself being a model by default for lack of any other viable model to serve as a yardstick and an acceptable model in a region in which democracy and representative politics are not in vogue.
It is important to point out here that the Kuwaiti experiment in representative politics did not start with the advent of the new independent state in 1961.
In addition, the Kuwaiti evolving representative experience did not occur in a vacuum either; it was the direct result of various socio-political processes of pushing, hauling and compromising between the Al Sabah family who has been ruling Kuwait uninterrupted since 1756 and the merchant elites and later the intellectual elites after independence.
The Kuwaiti rich and vibrant representative politics dates back to the 1920s and 1930s with the appointment of the Majlis Al Shura and the election of the legislative council.
In the post-independence era, Kuwait was the first to gain full sovereignty from Great Britain in 1961 among the littoral states of the Gulf countries which later formed the Gulf Cooperation Council in 1981.
Kuwait quickly embarked on nation building and institutionalised its political system by electing a constitutional assembly to draft the first constitution in the region.
In 1962 the first written constitution was promulgated and in 1963 the first National Assembly in the Gulf region was elected with 50 members of parliament elected by an all male suffrage.
Thus Kuwait entered the era of constitutional monarchy and representative politics in less than two years since its full sovereignty, which is a remarkable achievement for the small but determined country which continues to live in a tough and inhospitable region.
Since then, the Kuwaitis widened the suffrage to women in 2005 and elected 11 parliaments and formed 24 cabinets and interpolated 40 ministers, many of them belonging to the ruling family and forced more ministers to resign or the whole cabinet to resign more than any other country in the Arab world.
The parliament was itself dissolved by the Emir five times, in 1976, 1986, 1999, 2006 and 2008 because of its feistiness, vigour and over-zealous role.
Now, Kuwaiti politics has become the victim of its own success.
There is a feeling of malaise setting in due to the continued showdowns, distrust and ongoing tensions between the cabinet and the parliament which is dominated by independent MPs, with various stripes of Islamists being the majority.
The eternal problem in Kuwaiti politics is the lack of majority by either the cabinet or the parliament. Kuwait is neither a parliamentary nor a presidential system. It is a mish-mash of hereditary-parliamentary system where political parties do not exist.
In the final analysis, the false malaise should not be exaggerated. Moreover, the negative image which some Kuwaitis and other Gulf and Arab intellectuals feel about Kuwaiti representative politics should not take away from its pioneering and its indelible prints.
For Kuwaitis, and for all others who dream of living in a country where the final saying is for us, the citizens, where all powers rest and start, the Kuwaiti experience will continue to be the harbinger, the indigenous model after 50 years of its inception, to be emulated. That by itself, is a testimony to its resilience and saliency.

Dr Abdullah Alshayji is a Professor of Political Science and Head of the American Studies Unit at Kuwait University.

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