KUWAIT: THE STEADY ROAD TO DEMOCRACY

With flashing lights the ambulance negotiated the narrow gate, snailing along the path to park by the entrance of the assembly hall of the Sahmiah primary school in Kuwait City central second district. A young woman leapt out clutching some documents, dashed into a classroom turned polling station to return with the judge in charge of the centre.

Climbing into the back of the ambulance, the judge called on one of the police officers present to witness the identification of the young-woman’s mother, 48-year-old T.D.S, who is permanently connected to a kidney dialysis machine and other physiological-function sustaining equipment, and to facilitate her vote-casting in Kuwait’s second parliamentary election of 2012.

The 14th parliament, elected in February 2012 was dissolved in October in a standoff with the head of Kuwaiti state Emir Sabah Al Ahmad. In accordance with the constitution fresh elections had to take place within 50 days.

“My mother never bothered voting since her illness 13 years ago, which required round the clock medical care,” said the young woman, “but with the demonstrations and calls to boycott the election, she insisted on casting her vote this time to express her commitment to democracy.”

The dramatic gesture symbolised by T.D.S. encapsulates the complex confusion of Kuwaiti politics. Her illness is the result of chemical pollution left by the 1990-91 Iraqi occupation of Kuwait ( during which she was part of a David-like resistance against Goliath) She was also in the forefront of women campaigners for the vote; when their wish was granted by the late Emir Sheikh Jaber Al Ahmed in 1998, the Islamists dominated National Assembly (Parliament) reversed it the following year. It took an alliance of feminists, liberals, and the ruling Sabah family a further seven years to restore the Emir’s electoral equality act, which was passed by a majority of two votes.

Established in 1963, Kuwait parliament is the oldest in the Gulf and the most colourful in its lively and fierce debates The Prime Minister and his ministers are regularly summoned for a grilling, with the entire government giving the electorate a good run for its money. But over the past few years the Kuwaiti Parliament has grown to mirror the country’s complex socio-economic situation, as well as its political and tribal rivalries. Islamists became increasingly ideological with dwindling concern for national interests. Many of Kuwait’s Shia politicians dance to Iran’s tune, while others – Salafists and Sunnis – follow the Muslim Brother’s (established in Egypt in 1928), agenda of dismissing national sovereignty and interests, aiming rather for a trans-border Islamists caliphate. Both loathe liberal democracy, sexual equality, culture, art and above all women.

The autumn 2012 standoff in Parliament dominated by Islamists calling themselves opposition (which is both inaccurate and inappropriate since the executive government is appointed by the Emir in consultation with the speaker of Parliament and heads of committees, with no shadow government) was over democratic reform.

Since coming to power in 2006, the Emir has been steadily modernising the state as part of a programme he first instituted in the 1980s in cooperation with the late former Crown Prince and Prime Minister Sheikh Saad Al Abdullah. Sadly, progress was halted by a wave of bombings by terrorist cells working for the Iranians; then came the Iraqi invasion orchestrated by Saddam Hussein, which delayed it further. In less than five years the Emir reformed publications and printing laws which opened the door for many newspapers, radio and television networks making Kuwait the country with the highest number of daily newspapers and periodicals per head, in the region. He also decoupled the office of crown prince from that of prime minister, making it easier for the head of government to resign or to be dismissed. He is gradually separating state from government in slow, but steady moves, towards a Westminster style parliamentary democracy.

” The tribal nature of Kuwaiti society is still a block to forming political parties,” as Prime Minister Sheikh Al Jaber Al Mubarak told The Middle East . The Emir’s reforms are moving us towards a more universal one- man-one-vote system and empowering individual voters, which became a bone of contention with the last Islamist dominated, all male parliament. Under the old system, a voter would cast four votes for four different candidates. Heads of tribes would instruct tribe members and their extended families to vote for a particular list of four candidates. Such moves created blocks in parliament, severely hindering the progress of any serious business. Such a system also effectively excluded women from the last parliament.

Although the Emir stated publically that the state would follow the ruling of the constitutional court if anyone wanted to challenge the electoral law amendment; the so-called ‘opposition’ called for a boycott of the election and held three demonstrations – the last of which was on 9 December, which was less well attended than the march held on the eve of the election on 30 November.

The election turn out on 1 December was around 38% (the government claim 41%) but for the first time in many years, individual activists made bigger gains at the expense of traditional trouble making blocks including the tribes, the Salafists and Islamists. Hardline Islamists saw their 24 seats in the 50 strong parliament reduced to three, with four women coming in, while the Shia (who make up just over a quarter of the population) gained 17 seats (34%).

On 13 December, the Emir reappointed Sheikh Jaber Al Mubarak Prime Minister and asked him to form a government before Parliament opens on 17 December. Sheikh Jaber promptly appointed a woman as Minister of Commerce.

Although the opposition, as left wing western and British media call the boycotting block, claim the 15th National assembly to be made up of ‘stooges of government,’ local observers tell The Middle East a very different story. They expect confrontations in the new parliament as its members, especially the ones elected for the first time, get set to disprove the opposition’s claim.

They are expecting to grill ministers over several delayed infrastructural projects and pressurise the government to begin work on expanding hospital building and health facilities programmes, as several candidates pledged to do, during the election campaign.

Few in the West realise that Kuwaitis pay no taxes, and unlike western governments who design their expenditure according to taxes raised, Kuwait’s government is paternal in its approach towards its citizens.

From the moment a child is born, throughout education, the state foots the bill; even when couples get married; they expect the Emir to provide them with a home, which they build, or purchase on 0% mortgage without paying a deposit. Over 80% of the workforce is currently made up of state employees.

The new assembly is likely to approve the electoral law reform proposed by the Emir (which opened the doors for politicians without a strong tribal background and women); thus infuriating the boycotting block which controls a number of influential media outlets and has called for two demonstrations since the December elections.

Whether the 15th parliament lasts a full term of four years, or follows the fashion of reaching a standoff, dissolution, and another election in a few months, most Kuwaiti observers agree on two aspects. Firstly, that the next few months will not be an easy ride for the new parliment; and secondly, that establishing the electoral reform of one-voter-one-vote will bring to an end the ideological and tribal stranglehold over Kuwait parliamentary business marking a step forward towards more mature democracy that is likely to bear fruit in the next, 16th parliament.