Will Kuwait's political rollercoaster derail?

Dissolving Kuwait’s parliament – the most cooperative in years – could backfire, says Courtney Trenwith
Will Kuwait's political rollercoaster derail?
By Courtney Trenwith
Sat 22 Oct 2016 02:05 AM

Three years can be a long time in politics anywhere in the world, not least in Kuwait.

So it was particularly momentous that the Gulf state had managed a relatively stable legislators’ house since the last election in July, 2013, after several tumultuous years of repeated parliamentary dissolutions and cancelled elections.

But economic woes will test any government. Coupled with the unsavoury reduction of petrol subsidies that generations of citizens had come to take for granted and you have a recipe for a messy debate, which in the case of Kuwait pitted the Emir-appointed government against elected MPs.

As the country experiences its first deficit in two decades (a situation that was entirely avoidable and which the International Monetary Fund had warned of for years) the government’s decision to cut subsidies was logical.

But an 80 percent increase in petrol prices was too politically unpalatable for elected MPs facing a new vote mid-next year. Members of parliament filed three requests to grill ministers over the increase in petrol prices.

The tension became too much for the government, which held an emergency meeting on the afternoon of October 16. Immediately afterwards, Emir Sheikh Sabah Al Ahmad Al Sabah issued a decree dissolving parliament.

It was an easy way out of the dilemma.

Yet the Emir’s decree made no direct mention of the tensions, instead referring to “delicate regional developments” and “the dangers of security challenges”.

“It became necessary to go back to the people ... to elect their representatives ... and contribute to confronting those challenges,” the decree said.

The Emir’s explanation suggests the current parliament is incapable of dealing with those security challenges, while he did not describe how new legislators would handle the issues any differently or more effectively.

Kuwait does lie in a geographically strategic location, between Saudi Arabia and Iraq and across the Gulf from Iran, in a troubled region. But the truth is, its most pressing political difficulty recently is containing its expanding deficit and diversifying an economy that still relies on oil for more than 90 percent of its income.

The decision to sack this particular cohort of MPs also is surprising – and may prove to be more harmful to the government than it currently realises – given its strong public support for most government decisions. It has been the most cooperative parliament in many years.

The tactic also may backfire given that the opposition boycotted the 2013 election (over allegations that changes to the voting system deliberately made it more difficult for its members to win) but is yet to declare whether it will do the same at the new vote on November 26. If it participates it is likely to regain a sizable portion of seats in the parliament and create more headaches for the government than it was facing over oil subsidies. Recent history has shown that such pressure typically leads to yet another parliamentary dissolution.

Kuwait has made more progress on economic and investment reform with the current parliament than it did in the preceding two decades combined. It cannot afford to fall back into the game of parliamentary musical chairs.

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