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Mainstream, VOL L No 12, March 10, 2012

Kuwait: Best House in Bad Neighbourhood

Tuesday 13 March 2012

In a region surrounded by democratic desert, Kuwait is a shining example of democracy albeit limited. On gaining independence from Britain in 1960, Kuwait took only a year to hold democratic elections for a Constituent Aassembly which drew up the Constitution. Through perio-dic competitive elections Kuwait has exemplified a stable and relatively open political system, which stands in stark contrast to the sea of authoritarianism that surrounds it. Kuwait has been a sounding board, so to say, for ideas that have shaped Arab politics for the last half-a-century. No wonder this tiny nation, dwarfed by neighbouring giants Saudi Arabia, Iraq and Iran, has remained largely unaffected by the upheavals provoked by the Arab Spring. It is not just money that has provided the shield; it is Kuwait’s relatively open political system, largely free media and the political wisdom of its leadership that makes Kuwait an oasis of democracy and stability.

That is not to say Kuwait is not changing or that there are no democratic deficits. The February 2 parliamentary elections, the fourth in six years, were the results of political convulsions and growing assertiveness of the political groups that do not see eye to eye with the ruling Emir family. The parliamentary paralysis, corruption charges against the government and the resultant political heat forced the Emir to call for fresh elections. The vocabulary and grammar of Kuwaiti politics too have begun to change. Last year, something unusual happened. Kuwaiti demonstrators, including some former MPs, stormed the parliament. Some demonstrators even tried to storm the Prime Minister’s Office. In the end, the raid was brief. The crowd called for the dismissal of Prime Minister Sheikh Nasser Mohammad al-Ahmad al-Sabah, sang the national anthem and left. The politics of the street is a new phenomenon in Kuwait. The flash mob-like action left the political class stunned.

The demonstrators may or may not have taken a page from the Arab Spring and the Occupy Movement, but the unprecedented youth-led street protests did play a decisive role in the Opposition’s victory in the parliamentary elections. Kuwaiti analysts see the outcome of the polls as a triumph of Islamists and tribes who joined hands to oppose the government as also a punishment for the previous government over allegations of corruption. Former Prime Minister Sheikh Nasser Mohammad al-Ahmad al-Sabah was forced to resign following corruption charges that implicated over a dozen MPs.

The reasons for the Arab Spring not impacting Kuwait are not hard to find. What the Arab Spring is striving to achieve and what other Arab countries are fighting for, the Kuwaitis already have. As Professor Abdullah Al-Shayji of Kuwait University explains, “Kuwaitis are not questioning the legitimacy of the Al Sabah family. The demand is for reinventing Kuwaiti democracy, and not for forcing a fundamental change in the system.”

Kuwaitis are not happy with what they have; they want full democracy. What is significant is that there still is a broad consensus about the polity. During the campaigning, despite the heat and abusive language used by some candidates, the demand was not for regime change but political reform.

The outcome of the February 2 elections in Kuwait is unlikely to end the political impasse. With Opposition groups outmanoeuvring the liberals and supporters of the regime, one should not be surprised if this parliament’s term is even shorter than the previous one’s. Kuwait’s Opposi-tion has made significant gains winning 34 of the 50 seats in the National Assembly. As many as 23 seats have been bagged by Sunni Islamists. Liberals won nine seats, while women did not win any. There were four women in the last parliament. With Islamist candidates, including ultra-conservative Salafists, making impressive gains, there is a fear of Islamisation in certain political quarters. That fear may be exaggerated. However, if certain outstanding demands are not met like the Cabinet being formed by the parliament, recognition of political parties and delimitation of heavily flawed constituencies including the multi-member constituencies, things may take a turn for the worse.

In most Gulf countries, the power structure is centred around what has been labelled as the dimuqratiya-al-khubz (democracy of bread) where there exists a social contract in which the regime provides social and economic welfare in return for political loyalty. Of course, it helps to be rich. But several countries that are resource-rich have made a mess of their wealth. No country can survive as a rentier state forever. In the immediate aftermath of the Arab Spring several Gulf states came out with massive social welfare packages. Saudi Arabia announced doles worth $ 10.7 billion which included pay rises for government employees, new jobs and loan waivers. Qatar, the UAE and other states too sweetened the pot with additional spending on their citizens.

Kuwait too hiked salaries for its citizens. The Kuwaiti Government has for long been providing each Kuwaiti family with subsidised rice, lentils, frozen chicken and other foodstuff. It was recently announced that for the next two years these supplies would be free of charge. Each Kuwaiti is also entitled to a $ 3500 annual payment from the state. Kuwaitis pay no income tax, sales tax and electricity bills.

Kuwait is radically different from other Gulf monarchies. It is a combination of economic miseries and autocratic rule in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya that galvanised groups opposed to the despotic regimes. Kuwait is neither a despotic regime nor an economic basket case. On the contrary, Kuwaiti democracy has been a lighthouse in a region surrounded by autocracies. Kuwait is a success story that remains under-reported till date.

The practitioners of street politics are in a minority; the majority of people have faith in the Constitution and democratic practice. Political campaign in Kuwait is fascinating to watch. Candidates have learnt to use the modern media, especially TV. They organise seminars where the discussion is open and direct and the message is carried to people sitting at home. Kuwaiti political leaders use a political vocabulary which is new for most Arabs—good governance and transparency.
Though no woman candidate won this time and no woman has been appointed a Minister in the new Cabinet, women in Kuwait can no longer be pushed to the background. Thirtyfour per cent of the Kuwaiti workforce is made up of women. Most Kuwaiti graduates from institutions of higher learning are women. Indeed about 70 per cent of Kuwait University students are female. Increasing numbers of well-educated Kuwaiti women are now entering the workforce. In 2009, four women got elected to the parliament without the quota system.
New winds of democracy are blowing across the Arab world. Given the issues raised by the candidates, Kuwait would require to reinvent its democracy. How soon Kuwait switches over to constitutional monarchy and an elected Prime Minister and Cabinet remains to be seen.

Kuwait has survived worse political storms in the past and it has the ability to weather the present crisis. As Abdullah Al-Shayji says, “Kuwaiti politics lately resembles a dysfunctional, lethargic machine, rather than a vibrant model that used to awe and inspire.” All the same, the main challenge is not so much of the people versus the government, as is of the people versus the people. People believe their political system is still legitimate. Despite its imperfections, the Kuwaiti Constitution is still decades ahead of Arab monarchies and republics alike. No doubt the Emir has major powers but as the Constitution states, “the system of government in Kuwait shall be democratic, under which sovereignty resides in the people”.

The author is the Director, Institute of Social Sciences, New Delhi. He was recently in Kuwait as part of an international observers’ team to witness the February 2 elections to the Kuwaiti Parliament.

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