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Does Kuwait need a political revamp?

21 March 09 04:03 GMT

By Rami Ruhayem
BBC Arabic Service

If regular elections are a sign of a functioning democracy, politics in Kuwait are in excellent health.

Only 10 months after the last parliamentary elections were held in the oil-rich emirate, Kuwaitis will once again head to the polls, following the decision by the Emir to dissolve parliament.

Since 1991, Kuwaitis have voted six times - in 1992, 1996, 1999, 2003, 2006 and 2008.

Emir Sheikh Sabah al-Ahmad al-Sabah's decision this time was taken after a familiar crisis crippled the country's political system.

Opposition MPs were eager to question the prime minister over allegations of government corruption and mishandling of economic policy.

Rather than face questioning, the prime minister handed in his resignation.

As head of state and the country's highest political authority, the Emir stepped in, dissolved parliament and called new elections.

He also addressed the nation and delivered a scathing critique of what he saw as abuse by some MPs of their right to question the prime minister, which led to a "distortion of Kuwaiti freedom and democracy".

Force of tradition

The reason Kuwaitis are being called back to the polls so frequently is that the underlying reason for the crises is never addressed.

The public grilling process, which could lead to a vote of confidence in the prime minister, is seen by many as too humiliating for a member of the ruling family.

Analysts stress that from a legal perspective the MPs, however aggressive in their questioning, are within their constitutional rights.

But the force of tradition and respect for the ruling family stops the process of questioning in its tracks.

Observers speak of two possible solutions to this problem.

The first is installing a "popular government", a term used in Kuwait to describe a cabinet without members of the ruling family.

Supporters say that that would end the sensitivity about holding prime ministers and ministers to account.

The second solution, diametrically opposed to the first, is for the Emir to appoint the crown prince as prime minister. If this were to happen, the difficulty of questioning him would increase tenfold.

The crown prince, after all, is not merely a member of the ruling family, but also the future ruler of the country.

'Fundamental change'

Regardless of the election results, it is the Emir who will appoint the prime minister, and critics say that this lies at the heart of the problem.

Nasser al-Abdali, the head of the Kuwait Society for Development of Democracy, told the AFP news agency that "'fundamental change" is needed to the system in Kuwait.

"The constitution must be revamped to allow a true parliamentary system in which the government is elected," he said.

"If nothing happens, we will return to square one after the elections and have the same crises."

Many Kuwaitis take pride in the fact that Kuwait was, in 1962, the first gulf state to adopt a parliamentary democracy and a constitution.

The recurring crises, however, suggest that as it stands, Kuwait's version of parliamentary democracy perpetuates deadlock which only the Emir can break, until the next crisis comes along.

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