Kuwaiti politics continues to wait for better days. As the deadlock between the legislative and executive branches of government awaits the formation of a new cabinet, there is a sense of deja vu, as if we have all been there before. The rift between the legislative and the executive that has recently witnessed the resignation of the government, is just another step in a series of recriminations that have continued, practically, ever since the National Assembly was set up in the early 1960s. This time however, Kuwait’s Emir Shaikh Sabah Al Ahmad Al Sabah is not mincing his words, calling on the country’s National Assembly to act responsibly for the security and stability of the state.
The latest political embroilment, which previously led to successive dissolutions of the country’s parliament and even its closure in the late 1970s and early 1980s, resulted in the unexpected resignation of the government of Prime Minister Shaikh Jaber Al Mubarak Al Sabah. It was argued this was a tactical move to circumvent the vote of confidence motion tabled by deputies in the first week of the opening of parliament against one member of the cabinet.
The resignation of the government abruptly put a stop to that motion because under the Kuwaiti constitution at least one member of the government has to be present when a parliamentary debate is taking place. With the resignation, parliamentary work came to a halt, awaiting the formation of a new cabinet that is already in the pipeline but is expected to take weeks and even longer.
The Emir has already entrusted the formation of cabinet to the outgoing prime minister Shaikh Jaber Al Mubarak who is presently in the process of choosing new faces. The formation of a new cabinet or government is the prerogative of the emir and doesn’t need to get a vote of confidence from the National Assembly, giving the impression that they act independently.
But the assembly has a key power in the constitution which is to question and grill ministers. Over the years this has become a contentious issue and led to dissolutions of parliaments and resignations of governments and ministers which led mostly to their reappointments or that of the prime minister as in the latest assembly-government tiff. This time around the emir is playing his cards close to his chest. So far he has only issued warnings to the assembly that the security of the nation will be harmed if recriminations continue. Could this be a code word for another dissolution?
Certainly as in previous parliaments, the National Assembly, has tried his patience, with deputies deciding to flex their muscles a bit too early with its vote no-confidence motion against what is seen as one of the key members of the government, State Minister for Cabinet Affairs and Acting Minister of Information Shaikh Mohammad Abdullah Al Sabah for alleged budgetary mismanagement, lack of government transparency, unemployment levels and the failure to manage state projects, all of which he categorically denies. He was grilled by parliamentary deputies and afterwards the motion was tabled by 11 members of the house for the following week which would have led to many parliamentarians voting him down and lead to his sacking, creating a major embarrassment to the government and political rule.
This time around, and especially since the last National Assembly was elected in 2016, the government lost most of its supporters as nearly half of the 50-strong National Assembly are made up of opposition deputies and are mostly Islamists who boycotted parliament since 2012 but persuaded to enter the election this time around. However, these deputies have quickly said they are in no mood for diplomatic niceties and went after the government because of different issues, one of which is the restoration of citizenship from those it took it away from.
After weighing up the situation in parliament and the possible vote calculations needed of “half-plus-one”, the government sought that the best way out of its dilemma was to resign as a face-saving exercise and the most appropriate to get out of the political merry-go-around of baseless accusations.
It’s still touch and go. The emir has the power to dissolve parliament and call for fresh elections and start anew, so to speak, but this would accentuate the political malaise in the country of short governments, lacking stability and permanence to carry out policy and seeing its fruits of borne out. Since 2012 there have been four parliamentary elections and seven since 2006 with contined changing of faces in the legislature and to a lesser extent the cabinet. Pundits have argued going to the polls have been used both as a carrot and a stick and resulted in the disruption of policy and legislation. This might be why the emir and government are taking a more laid-back approach to the last spat with the National Assembly. The easiest thing of course would be to dissolve the Assembly, but who would really benefit, if this step is taken. This time around, what is being talked about is a cabinet reshuffle, one no doubt being taken to placate the deputies, instead of embarking on a political process that is lengthy, costly and leads to more disruptions in the public bureaucracy, at a time when government revenues, which greatly depend on oil that are presently at their lowest and bearing in mind this government is number 34 in the history of modern Kuwait.
Regardless and because of the lengthy representative experience of Kuwait that spanned over 50 years, it would be naive to suggest there wasn’t a degree of political dexterity and connivance played at the highest political level with government and deputies trying their hand at the game of brinkmanship for their own ends. It may simply be said this time around the government felt it needed to act quickly to divert a bigger and potentially-ruinous political disaster because the no-confidence motion was only the start of a series of measures by deputies to bring ministers to their knees which may have led to a worsened political state. Everyone is waiting now for a new cabinet but that may actually take quite a while to defuse the current domestic political tensions.
Marwan Asmar is a commentator based in Amman. He has a PhD in Political Science from Leeds University in the UK.