Kuwait makes stuttering political progress

KUWAIT AT 50 With friction between MPs and cabinet, suspicions linger that the kingdom¿s rulers may be content with a parliament that is divided and bogged down in political deadlock.

Ex MP Abdullah Al Nibari during a Parliament session in this file photo taken September 2002. (Photo:Gustavo Ferrari/The National)
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KUWAIT CITY // Since independence in 1961 Kuwaiti politics has been anything but smooth. The country has written a constitution, elected 13 parliaments and reverted to autocratic rule for several years on two occasions, in 1976 and 1986.

The make-up of Kuwait's parliament has reflected political trends that swept the region after Israel's victory in the 1967 war. Pan-Arab liberals, who formed the core of the opposition in the early years, have lost votes as Islamists grew in strength, although mostly pro-government liberals still have a presence.

Tribes, which continued to settle throughout the 1960s and 1970s, have enough voting muscle to regularly win about half of the chamber's 50 seats.

In recent years, however, Kuwait's national assembly, one of the few elected legislatures in the region, has become bogged down in a standoff between MPs and the government and, according to some observers, the parliament is actually impeding Kuwait's development.

Friction between the elected parliament and cabinet, which is selected by the prime minister, has led to three premature dissolutions since 2006. The stuttering nature of parliamentary life has been lubricated by the ministers' unwillingness to face questioning. MPs crossed what used to be a red line when the current prime minister, Sheikh Nasser Mohammed al Sabah, allowed himself to be interpellated for the first time in 2009.

In the past, the emir had dissolved the House or the cabinet had resigned so that Sheikh Nasser would not have to face a grilling from the MPs.

Abdullah al Nibari, a former member of parliament, said: "There is a general view that the parliament has a way of going too far." Critics of opposition MPs say some of them question ministers who do not meet their demands, even if it is for personal issues such as providing jobs for their friends.

Mr al Nibari said after the first election in 1963 "it was a credible parliament in the eyes of the Kuwaiti citizen, in the eyes of the Gulf".

But the assembly has been dissolved when the rulers "thought that parliament could encroach on the absolute authority of the royal family. Generally, there was always fear that they don't want an effective parliament," he said.

The suspicion that the royal family have not always been fully behind the constitutional system is shared by Mohammed al Qadiri, a former diplomat and adviser to the emir. He said "the golden age" ended when the emir who paved the way for the constitution, Sheikh Abdullah Salem al Sabah, died in 1965. The opposition resigned after accusations that the 1967 election was rigged.

"The problem is that the majority of the parliament is in the hands of the cabinet, because the sheikhs, they finance the election campaigns with millions and they buy votes for their deputies," Mr al Qadiri said. The royal family has repeatedly spoken of its commitment to the constitution. In an interview published in the state news agency, Kuna, last year Sheikh Nasser said the government had won the support of a parliamentary majority because of the people's choice.

"I also want everybody to know that there is no one above the law in terms of corruption," Sheikh Nasser said.

Mr al Qadiri resigned from his post in 1987, after the constitution was suspended for the second time, and worked with the opposition. He was imprisoned during a government clampdown in 1990 for "threatening the interests of Kuwait", a charge that can entail a lengthy prison sentence.

He said he was released one week before the 1990 invasion by Iraq when the rulers changed tact and started asking for dialogue. Constitutional politics resumed after the country was liberated in 1991.

In one of Kuwait's more malevolent episodes the former MP Mr al Nibari survived an assassination attempt. After a holiday on the coast in 1997, as he and his wife drove home, would-be assassins sprayed his car with machine-gun fire.

"It's probably related to opening the corruption files," Mr al Nibari recently said in his diwaniya, one of many such meeting rooms across the country that are the bedrock of Kuwaiti democracy. "I was the chairman of the committee for protection of the public funds and ownership. And we had many corruption cases."

One bullet hit the now 73-year-old on the chin; another entered his left shoulder and damaged a lung. He recovered after five months of hospital treatment, as did his wife, who was struck by a bullet in the back. Mr al Nibari, who has been elected five times, is a staunch critic of the government and exponent of political reform. He said, afterwards: "I didn't give up politics and I didn't change my attitude."

Despite the recent problems the parliament has given women a platform and in 2009 four women won seats for the first time.

Lulwa Saleh al Mulla, the secretary general of the Kuwait Women's Cultural and Social Society, said: "We felt proud that women and society were ready for this execution of democracy.

"Democracy means a lot to us because of Kuwait's society and history. The constitution has been the struggle of our fathers and brothers," Ms al Mulla said.