WASHINGTON — Kuwait’s entire cabinet resigned last Monday, less than a week after the opening of its parliament — and following the interrogation of one of its members during a parliamentary session.
Under Kuwait’s constitution, the prime minister’s resignation triggers the resignation or removal of the entire cabinet — and the prime minister on Monday submitted his resignation to Kuwait’s emir, who accepted it. The parliament’s speaker announced that the legislative body will not meet until a new parliament is seated, and in the meantime, the current cabinet will act as an interim caretaker cabinet.
The process of selecting a new cabinet is expected to take a few weeks. However, there is no official length of time in which the prime minister — who is appointed by the emir — must form a new cabinet. The reasons behind these resignations indicate the difficult balance Kuwait’s government hopes to strike between austerity, public support and effective governance.
Kuwait’s opposition — nearly half of parliament — is a loose coalition of tribal and Islamist MPs. While political parties are technically illegal in Kuwait, the opposition has been able to slow the government’s austerity agenda — a response to the persistently low price of oil.
Tribal members of Kuwait’s opposition met over a month before the parliament’s opening to coordinate an agenda that included opposition to price increases on health care for expatriates and fuel prices. Among the issues they discussed was a proposal to force the government to reshuffle through scheduling a series of intense interrogations in the parliament. These “grillings” forestall votes on other measures and force the government to spend political capital defending its policies.
The first of these interrogations, against Kuwait’s minister of information, occurred on the parliament’s opening day. No-confidence votes had been planned the following day for a cabinet minister but news of the resignations pre-empted it.
A cabinet reshuffle is an indication that the opposition’s tactics were effective in the short term. However, because there is no deadline by which a new cabinet must be appointed, the government may also be able to break the opposition’s momentum on opposition to austerity. The government can also use the moratorium on parliament sessions as a bargaining chip to wrest concessions from the opposition before it announces a new cabinet.
Kuwait’s 22-person cabinet was itself formed following a reshuffle last December. The prime minister, historically a member of the royal family, leads the cabinet members — who generally carry out the agenda of the emir. (Though, unlike the emir, cabinet ministers are not legally shielded from public criticism.) Several of these ministers have played a major role in Kuwait’s austerity efforts, and while some of these ministers may be reappointed to the cabinet, their resignations signal their personal support for the emir and the government’s agenda.
With the mass resignations, the government’s primary intention was to reshuffle the cabinet. In fact, the prime minister has already been reappointed to form the new cabinet. They also indicate the emir’s willingness to reshuffle the cabinet should it fall short of achieving the goals of austerity — a standard that many in parliament have advocated.
Solving these problems, however, involves painful austerity measures that require buy-in from the parliament to be effective and not bear too high a political cost.
The cabinet reshuffle allows Kuwait’s government to realign the parliament’s agenda towards austerity and create buy-in from MPs for this agenda. While it cannot prevent the prospect of future interrogations that grind parliament to a halt, the government can use the time between the resignation of the old parliament and appointment of a new one to come to an agreement with opposition figures over its policies.
Kuwait’s opposition may oppose the government’s austerity measures, but it has not offered a viable alternative. The resignation of Kuwait’s cabinet offers a potential opportunity to renegotiate a working relationship between the government and opposition that benefits Kuwaitis. However, such a relationship would require both sides to engage in a constructive manner.
Rather than resorting to populist proposals that have little positive economic impact, Kuwait’s opposition, while serving as a check on government power, will need to offer viable alternatives to taxes and price hikes. Kuwait’s government will need to ease the short-term anxieties of the Kuwaiti people and work with them.