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Democratic road to nowhere

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Kuwaiti general elections produced an identical parliament to the previous one, ensuring that the mindset of the nation is still not ready for change, says Sherine Bahaa ——————————————————————————–

No sooner had the results of the elections been announced than the Kuwaiti cabinet proffered their resignation, a necessary procedure after elections, leaving it to the emir to appoint a new cabinet.

The cabinet and parliament are regarded as a source of tension in the oil-rich Gulf country. As expected, the Kuwaiti ruler asked the outgoing premier, his nephew, to form the government.

Calls were made during the election campaign to replace the prime minister and even appoint a commoner to the post. Since Kuwait introduced a parliamentary system in 1962, the prime minister has been a senior member of the Al-Sabah dynasty. Family members also occupy key ministries like defence, interior and foreign affairs.

Senior Islamist MP Walid Al-Tabtabai called for a new prime minister “who should vigorously fight corruption and reform the administration” to be appointed. Al-Tabtabai, of the Salafi Alliance, said the outgoing government has been tested and failed, and the country cannot put up with more of the same.

The spell that elections once cast seems to be losing its power. During the run-up to the 2006 parliamentary polls, Kuwait’s young people engaged enthusiastically in the campaigns, backing candidates, writing blogs, and attending opposition protests. This time around, however, voters said that they felt more cynicism than optimism about the outcome of the elections and a new parliament.

It was the third election to take place in the last five years after five government resignations since February 2006. This week’s election resulted in a new majlis, or legislative body, but with the same old faces. “We’re back to square one,” said Shamlan Al-Issa, a political science professor at Kuwait University.

Kuwait was in dire need of new faces to help end endemic political feuding. In Saturday’s vote, tribal MPs took 23 seats in the assembly, Islamists 11 seats, liberals 11 seats, and Shia candidates five seats. The mystery is why the Kuwaiti electorate consistently vote for the same faces.

While 27 female candidates were running, not a single woman won a seat in the 50-member majlis despite the fact that women make up 55 per cent of the 361,700 eligible voters. This is only the second time women have been eligible to run for parliamentary elections after winning the right to vote in May 2005. Only one candidate — Westernised liberal Aseel Al-Awadi — even came close to being elected. “We expected Kuwaiti voters to be more aware,” said Najla Al-Naqi, a 42-year-old lawyer who also ran. “We had hoped for new young faces, for one woman at least.”

Moreover, the election was the first under the country’s new electoral law. Based on districting system, the new system was designed to reduce the influence of tribal politics, vote buying, and other anti-democratic abuses. Instead of 25 small districts, where personal ties and influence inevitably loom large, with two elected officials each, the country is divided into five large districts with 10 representatives each. Each voter was able to select four from the approximately 55 candidates in each district, and the 10 with the most votes won parliamentary seats.

Cabinet reshuffling or resignation as well as parliament dissolution has become the common refrain in Kuwait’s political life. Fierce squabbling between lawmakers and the government have often obstructed any element of reform in the fourth largest producer in the Organisation of Petroleum Exporting Countries. Islamist and tribal MPs have traditionally rejected government proposals for economic liberalisation, preferring instead to a welfare system.

Parliamentary intransigence has stalled legislation on critical development projects like the $20 billion Project Kuwait, intended to expand Kuwait’s oil exports from the current 2.6 million barrels per day to four million by 2020 by opening northern oil fields to foreign investment through specialised service contracts.

Fifteen-year-old plans for the sell-off state- owned industries have languished in parliament, with opposition coming mostly from tribal and Islamist MPs, who derive their main support from citizens who work in the public sector.

Indeed, the only substantive legislation the parliament and government have been able to agree upon was a much-delayed law to lower the flat tax on foreign firms operating in Kuwait. In December 2007, the government finally won parliament approval to lower the tax from 55 per cent to 15 per cent. In January, parliament finally agreed after five years of discussion to privatise the profit-losing state airline, Kuwait Airways.

Inflation has further stoked frustration among the country’s 1.4 million citizens. Housing costs have jumped 12.6 per cent and food costs are up more than six per cent. Higher government spending and a raise for public service sector employees, 90 per cent of whom are Kuwaiti nationals, have failed to overcome growing dissatisfaction with the country’s economic affairs.

“There is no excuse for Kuwait to be where it is, we want to move forward,” said Lubna Saif Abbas on her way to vote at an all-female polling station in a suburb of Kuwait City. “We’ve got the infrastructure, but not the management capabilities,” said Abbas, who identified herself as a general manager of several companies.

The fractious relation between the cabinet and parliament is at least partly to blame for the paralysis of the economic and political life of the sheikhdom. The previous parliament was dissolved after the entire cabinet, appointed by the emir, resigned in protest over the lack of cooperation from parliamentarians.

The country remains dominated by the head of state, Sheikh Sabah Al-Sabah, and his ruling family; its democratic representatives enjoy limited power and their institutions are still feeble. Grillings are usually followed by votes of no confidence, which are considered a challenge to the authority of the Al-Sabah family. The royal family tries to thwart them through cabinet reshuffles and parliament dissolutions.

Without new elements being induced in the country’s political life, the new majlis and cabinet will most likely indulge in new rounds of tense squabbling, leading nowhere. For Kuwaitis to see their regional rivals such as Dubai, Bahrain and Qatar transform themselves into centres of international finance and tourism is depressing.

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