Analysis: Kuwait needs reforms before elections

DUBAI Thu Dec 8, 2011 12:40pm EST

Kuwaiti protesters hold national flags as they stand upon the desks of the speaker of parliament in the debate hall of the National Assembly at the Kuwait's parliament in Kuwait City in this November 16, 2011 file photo.  REUTERS/Stringer/Files UNREST)

Kuwaiti protesters hold national flags as they stand upon the desks of the speaker of parliament in the debate hall of the National Assembly at the Kuwait's parliament in Kuwait City in this November 16, 2011 file photo.

Credit: Reuters/Stringer/Files UNREST)

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DUBAI (Reuters) - Kuwait's emir has resolved a standoff with parliament by dissolving it, but holding elections without addressing the root causes of the country's political paralysis risks creating a deeper crisis.

The OPEC oil producer, one of Washington's closest Gulf Arab allies, has for years been torn by bickering between a loose coalition of opposition lawmakers and a government headed by the emir's nephew, Sheikh Nasser al-Mohammad al-Sabah, over allegations of corruption and mismanagement which he denies.

No one is suggesting that Kuwait, a cradle-to-grave welfare state where per capita income is around $48,000, is heading toward an Arab Spring-style uprising.

But the crisis has virtually blocked oil, infrastructure and other development plans from being debated or approved by the government since Sheikh Nasser was first appointed prime minister following a contentious succession that brought the emir, Sheikh Jaber al-Ahmed al-Sabah, to power in 2006.

Last month, the standoff appeared to be dragging Kuwait into the kind of mass protests that have ousted Arab heads of state when MPs led activists in storming parliament.

The emir responded by ordering a crackdown on what he called attempts to destabilize the country.

But after pledging not to give in to opposition lawmakers' demands, the ruler last week made a complete U-turn when he accepted the resignation of Sheikh Nasser's government and then dissolved parliament and called a new election, citing the difficulties in achieving any progress. No date has yet been set for the vote.

"The crisis of the political system and the need for reforms transcends the issue of the resignation of the prime minister or the sacking of parliament," said Ahmad al-Deyain, a political writer and activist.

"A change of faces will only recycle the crisis. Now the congestion has been reduced, but the root causes of the problem are still there."

PARLIAMENTARY POWERS

At stake are the powers that parliament needs to carry out its duty of overseeing government operations to ensure efficiency and transparency in a country which enjoys one of the highest standards of living in the world.

Activists say the crisis is a product of the ruling family's sense of privilege and intolerance of parliament calling ministers to account in public.

The crisis took a new twist in August when Kuwaiti media reported that local banks had become suspicious about large deposits into the accounts of some parliamentarians and members of their families.

Activists say that since then, at least 13 lawmakers have been referred to the public prosecution office for investigation over allegations that the government was paying MPs to buy their loyalty in non-confidence motions.

"The crisis has been brewing for more than three years, and it largely emanates from bad political management and the inability of the government to implement any program," said Ghanem al-Najjar, a political commentator.

In November the government rejected outright a request by lawmakers to question Sheikh Nasser in the assembly about the corruption allegations.

The cabinet has used softer ruses in the past to prevent prime ministers being questioned.

"When the constitution is violated, the people will take revenge," opposition MP Musallam al-Barrak said at the time.

STAGNANT POLITICAL SYSTEM

Analysts said attempts to erode parliament's powers were a result of stagnation in a political system formed as colonial power Britain left in the 1960s.

The constitution provides for an elected parliament with legislative powers, but the emir appoints the prime minister and governments are often packed with members of the ruling family.

The system is more democratic than anywhere else in the Gulf Arab region but in light of the Arab Spring some Kuwaitis are beginning to press for a real constitutional monarchy.

The two institutions, a popularly elected parliament and dynasty-based cabinet, have tussled constantly. But parliament has become more insistent in recent years about acting on its powers of supervision over cabinet appointments and spending.

The key shift in recent months has been increased calls for a change in the division of power that has lasted since independence. This would allow the formation of political parties which would compete in elections and have a say in forming the cabinet.

Analysts say formation of political parties is allowed by the constitution but would need a strong parliament to draft the necessary legislation.

"The constitution needs to develop toward more democracy, like what happened in Morocco," Deyain said, referring to recent changes in the North African Arab state, where the government is now formed by the party which receives the largest number of seats in parliament.

"We need constitutional reforms. The exceptional protection provided to the prime minister must be cancelled."

(Reporting by Sami Aboudi; editing by Andrew Hammond and Mark Trevelyan)

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