Kuwait standoff needs urgent fix before elections

Risk of further crisis blocking growth of private sector, economy
Kuwait standoff needs urgent fix before elections
Emir of Kuwait Sheikh Sabah Al Ahmad Al Jaber Al Sabah
By Reuters
Sat 10 Dec 2011 03:02 PM

Kuwait's
emir has resolved a standoff with parliament by dissolving it, but holding
elections without addressing the root causes of the country's political
paralysis risks creating a deeper crisis.

The OPEC
oil producer, one of Washington's closest Gulf Arab allies, has for years been
torn by bickering between a loose coalition of opposition lawmakers and a
government headed by the emir's nephew, Sheikh Nasser al-Mohammad al-Sabah,
over allegations of corruption and mismanagement which he denies.

No one
is suggesting that Kuwait, a cradle-to-grave welfare state where per capita
income is around $48,000, is heading towards an Arab Spring-style uprising.

But the
crisis has virtually blocked oil, infrastructure and other development plans
from being debated or approved by the government since Sheikh Nasser was first
appointed prime minister following a contentious succession that brought the
emir, Sheikh Jaber al-Ahmed al-Sabah, to power in 2006.

Last
month, the standoff appeared to be dragging Kuwait into the kind of mass
protests that have ousted Arab heads of state when MPs led activists in
storming parliament.

The emir
responded by ordering a crackdown on what he called attempts to destabilise the
country.

But
after pledging not to give in to opposition lawmakers' demands, the ruler last
week made a complete U-turn when he accepted the resignation of Sheikh Nasser's
government and then dissolved parliament and called a new election, citing the
difficulties in achieving any progress. No date has yet been set for the vote.

"The
crisis of the political system and the need for reforms transcends the issue of
the resignation of the prime minister or the sacking of parliament," said
Ahmad al-Deyain, a political writer and activist.

"A
change of faces will only recycle the crisis. Now the congestion has been reduced,
but the root causes of the problem are still there."

At stake
are the powers that parliament needs to carry out its duty of overseeing
government operations to ensure efficiency and transparency in a country which
enjoys one of the highest standards of living in the world.

Activists
say the crisis is a product of the ruling family's sense of privilege and
intolerance of parliament calling ministers to account in public.

The
crisis took a new twist in August when Kuwaiti media reported that local banks
had become suspicious about large deposits into the accounts of some
parliamentarians and members of their families.

Activists
say that since then, at least 13 lawmakers have been referred to the public
prosecution office for investigation over allegations that the government was
paying MPs to buy their loyalty in non-confidence motions.

"The
crisis has been brewing for more than three years, and it largely emanates from
bad political management and the inability of the government to implement any
programme," said Ghanem al-Najjar, a political commentator.

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In
November the government rejected outright a request by lawmakers to question
Sheikh Nasser in the assembly about the corruption allegations.

The
cabinet has used softer ruses in the past to prevent prime ministers being
questioned.

"When
the constitution is violated, the people will take revenge," opposition MP
Musallam al-Barrak said at the time.

Analysts
said attempts to erode parliament's powers were a result of stagnation in a
political system formed as colonial power Britain left in the 1960s.

The
constitution provides for an elected parliament with legislative powers, but
the emir appoints the prime minister and governments are often packed with
members of the ruling family.

The
system is more democratic than anywhere else in the Gulf Arab region but in
light of the Arab Spring some Kuwaitis are beginning to press for a real
constitutional monarchy.

The two
institutions, a popularly elected parliament and dynasty-based cabinet, have
tussled constantly. But parliament has become more insistent in recent years
about acting on its powers of supervision over cabinet appointments and
spending.

The key
shift in recent months has been increased calls for a change in the division of
power that has lasted since independence. This would allow the formation of
political parties which would compete in elections and have a say in forming
the cabinet.

Analysts
say formation of political parties is allowed by the constitution but would
need a strong parliament to draft the necessary legislation.

"The
constitution needs to develop towards more democracy, like what happened in
Morocco," Deyain said, referring to recent changes in the North African
Arab state, where the government is now formed by the party which receives the
largest number of seats in parliament.

"We
need constitutional reforms. The exceptional protection provided to the prime
minister must be cancelled."

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