Posts Tagged 'grilling'

The meaning of ”crisis” in Kuwait

By: Jon Nordenson

Once again, political “crisis” looms over Kuwait, with some commentators suggesting that parliament soon will be dissolved, and new elections held. Yet, in light of the past five years in Kuwaiti politics, this can hardly be termed a “crisis”. Rather, it is politics as usual.

The background for the current crisis is the alleged transfer of approximately KD 25 million ($ 91 million) from government funds to two pro-government MPs. Obviously, this is a serious issue, and in many people’s eyes a confirmation of the corruption they see in every aspect of the Kuwaiti state. Not surprisingly, the scandal has provoked many initiatives from oppositional MPs and activists.

For one thing, opposition MPs have called for an emergency session on the issue, in order to debate this particular incident and to pass new laws to prevent corruption and money laundering. According to Kuwaiti law, an emergency session must be held if at least 33 MPs sign the proposal. So far, 29 MPs have signed, with about 20 pro-government MPs rejecting the initiative, at least for now. One might question whether or not this is a wise approach on part of the government; with such serious accusations, it should be in everyone’s interest to investigate them properly. Moreover, given the recent crisis combined with a fresh report from the IMF criticizing Kuwait for not doing enough to hinder money laundering and terror-financing, new laws on these issues might be a very good idea. It should of course be noted here that the government may agree with the need for a debate on the issue as well as to review country’s legal framework, even though it does not agree on the need for an emergency session.

The scandal has provoked other initiatives as well; a website launched by activists in the country encourage MPs to sign a pledge to provide the authorities with access to their bank accounts, in order to clear themselves from any suspicion of being involved in the scandal. Many MPs have signed similar pledges on their own initiative as well. Moreover, a large demonstration against corruption is planned for the 16th of September. And, of course, the scandal has provoked new istijwabat, that is, interpellations against cabinet ministers, in this case the PM himself.

As I have written earlier, Kuwaiti MPs have a constitutional right to question cabinet ministers on a particular issue, and the questioning may be followed by a vote of confidence. Previously, these interpellations have been a constant source of “crisis” in Kuwait, in that they have provoked the resignation of ministers, the entire cabinet and even the dissolution of parliament when the minister in question stands to lose the vote of confidence. It has been, for quite a few years, the weapon of choice for the opposition. This time, the interpellation on the 25 millions comes in addition to two other interpellations already presented against the PM, and they will almost certainly be followed by a vote of no confidence.

Thus, “crisis” is looming again, and as mentioned, many commentators have predicted the dissolution of the parliament and early elections. But this in itself is nothing out of the ordinary. Since the parliament was reinstated after the war in 1992, only to parliaments have completed their 4-year terms. Since 2003, there have been held four elections in Kuwait. Accordingly, there would be nothing extraordinary about early elections, and it can hardly be said to constitute a “crisis”, as a “crisis” implies that something extraordinary has taken place.

However, this is not to say that Kuwaiti politics is not in a state of crisis. The constant bickering between parliament and government seems to prevent any real development from taking place. The government seems unable to govern an unruly parliament, while the parliament is prevented by law from governing (the Kuwaiti government is not based on a parliamentary majority, it is named directly by the Emir. The parliament for their part has largely negative powers). The result is that nothing much happens; the grand development scheme adopted by the parliament earlier has not yet materialized, in fact, the PM just ordered a report on why it has not yet materialized. And, as the statistics mentioned above clearly shows; neither party is willing to give in, and the result is deadlock and “crisis”. Moreover; the level of corruption revealed in this latest scandal is hardly an asset in Kuwait’s stated bid to become a “financial hub” in the region. In all, crisis may be a fitting description of the state of Kuwaiti politics, but the constant “crisis” between parliament and government is merely a symptom of more fundamental problems.

Kuwait: reforms still going strong?

By: Jon Nordenson

Following three years of political turmoil, the parliament installed by the 2009 elections has proven to be a more stable one, with less focus on ”crisis” and more on passing laws. So far, a new labor law, a five-year development plan, and even a draft of a privatization bill have all passed through parliament. Confidence in the cooperation between parliament and government seems to be high, and HH the Emir has expressed his hope that the current parliament completes its four year term. If so, it would be the first time in years. Yet, as the MPs reconvene following the Eid al-Adha holiday, clouds may be looming on the horizon.

 

For one thing, there is the ever present threat of  “grillings”, that is, interpellations directed at cabinet ministers by MPs. As I’ve written earlier, such motions may be followed by a vote of no confidence directed at the minister in question, and have notoriously lead to political crisis earlier. However, following the 2009 elections, this seems to have changed. Instead of resigning (or HH the Emir dissolving parliament), the cabinet has chosen to face both interpellations and any following votes on confidence, though making sure they had the backing of a majority of the MPs (though some MPs reportedly have claimed that the government “buys” the support of other MPs). By doing so, crisis have been averted, and the parliament and the government have been able to carry on.

 

These days, a number of interpellations are reportedly being prepared by various MPs, prompting the Kuwait Times to announce the “grilling season”. The question is then, naturally, whether or not the cabinet and the parliament will manage to avoid crisis this time around? An intriguing article in Kuwait Times suggests so; negotiations are going on behind the scene, so that the interpellations can be held without the government running to big a risk.

 

Another potential cloud on the horizon lies in the implementation of the reforms themselves. It has not yet been determined how the development plan, which is intended to turn Kuwait into a financial hub of the region and drastically increase the country’s non-oil income, is to be financed. The discussions concentrate on a development fund, as well as the establishment of several companies, whose shares are to be made available to ordinary Kuwaitis. Yet, no complete plan for funding has so far been presented to parliament by the government.  The process has already been going on for months, and inevitably raises the question of whether the government and the parliament will be able to see the project through. Kuwait’s past record might suggest that the answer is no.

 

Then again, things do seem to be different with this parliament. Perhaps as a result of the constant “crisis” between 2006 and 2009, this parliament and this government seems determined to be more constructive and produce results. There seems to be a majority of the MPs (though with some changes from issue to issue) inclined to support government initiatives and to prevent crisis as a result of interpellations. Yet, if this new found pragmatism if to be successful, the projects of the government and the parliament must be realized.

Slippery slope towards democracy?

By: Jon Nordenson

The last couple of weeks have been extremely eventful in Kuwaiti politics. Four ministers have faced interpellation in parliament, and two of them votes of no-confidence as well. For now, crisis seems to be averted, with both votes failing to gain a majority. But is this positive, negative, or perhaps a little bit of both?

As I have written earlier, four ministers faced questioning in parliament (interpellations) last week, two of them being PM Sheikh Nasser al-Mohammed and interior minister Sheikh Jaber al-Khaled, who also faced votes of no-confidence. Or, to be precise, the PM faced a vote of “no-cooperation”, but had it gained a majority, the lack of confidence would still be rather obvious. Each of these votes could easily have created political crisis in Kuwait had they passed, with the dissolution of parliament being a likely outcome. In stead, the PM was backed by 35 MPs, with 13 MPs against him and one abstaining. As for the interior minister, the numbers were 26 in favor of the minister, 18 against him and 5 abstaining.

So, crisis seems to be averted for now. But does this give reason for celebration? There is one obvious problem: the PM was accused of mismanaging public funds. If the accusations were true, the consequences for the PM should of course have been more severe. But to determine what’s true and not is rather difficult, accusations have been thrown both ways in the media, and the session itself was held behind closed doors. In addition, there are always many possible factors at play in Kuwaiti politics; tribal interests, internal royal family rivalry, personal interests (and prospects for re-election) of MPs and so on.

Still, what is quite clear is that yet another political taboo has been broken in Kuwait, the interpellation and no-confidence vote on the PM. Last June interior minister Sheikh Jaber al-Khaled faced interpellation and a vote of no-confidence in parliament, being the first member of the royal family to do so. Now the PM himself has followed, which could be seen as a de facto extension of the powers of the parliament. Even though MPs have the constitutional right to interpellate ministers, exercising this right has been sensitive when it comes to ministers from the royal family. Now the parliament has proved its ability to supervise and hold accountable for any wrong-doings all members of the cabinet, including those from the royal family. One should of course bear in mind that the government probably knew very well that they would win both votes of no-confidence, and that things could have been very different if they weren’t so sure. But still, they went through with it, even in the midst of hosting a GCC summit.

Naturally, many in Kuwait have praised this “historical achievement all world should idolize”, as cabinet member Mohammed al-Busayri put it. However, others have been less enthusiastic. MP Ali al-Rashid, a liberal former member of the National Democratic Alliance, last week suggested amending the constitution, to make interpellations more difficult. Although he claimed that he was “only floating ideas for debate”, his proposal sparked harsh reactions from oppositional forces. For their part, the government has distanced themselves from the proposal, claiming to have “no relations whatsoever” with it.

Whether or not this is true is difficult to say. It might be a test balloon from the government, or it might be an MP tired of Kuwait’s near permanent state of political crisis. Which leads us to a major problem; though the parliament successfully exercises its powers, these powers are, to quote Michael Herb, “largely negative”. The parliament can question ministers and block legislation, but have showed little ability to pass new legislation, and to deal with pressing issues. This is of course also the responsibility of the government, but the result is nevertheless political stalemate. Which in turn seems to frustrate Kuwaiti citizens, as well as MPs and ministers.

If Kuwait is indeed on a slippery slope towards democracy, this problem lies at its core. If the only result of the parliament’s battle for its democratic powers is stalemate and inaction, it will be hard to succeed, and it will be difficult to win popular support. Democracy is a big issue in Kuwait, but so are the financial crisis, a worn-down infrastructure, and unemployment.

The interpellation of the PM, and the following vote of no-cooperation might be viewed, at least for now, as yet another step on Kuwait’s journey towards a more democratic political system. But unless the Kuwaiti parliament finds some way of combining its expanding supervisory powers with constructive developmental work, things may become difficult up ahead.

Rising tensions in Kuwait?

By: Jon Nordenson

Seemingly, political tensions are rising in Kuwait, with four MPs being stripped of their immunity, four interpellations on the agenda for the December 8th session, and the interior minister Sheikh Jaber asking MP Khaled al-Tahous to “shut up” during a parliamentary session. But the reasons behind this apparent crisis are not as clear as Sheikh Jaber’s words.

To begin with the interpellations (Arabic استجواب , often referred to in English in Kuwait as “grilling”), these are the constitutional right of every MP to question a cabinet minister, and may – if 10 MPs demand so – be followed by a vote of no confidence. As I have written before, interpellations have often led to political crisis in Kuwait, especially when directed at ministers from the royal family. In such cases, the cabinet often prefers to resign rather than to face questioning in the parliament. However, this summer, interior minister Sheikh Jaber Al-Khaled Al-Sabah not only faced questioning in parliament, but a vote of no confidence as well (which did not gain a majority).  So, even though such interpellations obviously are problematic for both the government and the royal family, they do not automatically lead to crisis.

However, no less than four such interpellations are on the agenda for the parliament’s session on the 8th of December. And not only are three of them directed against members of the royal family, one is even directed at Prime Minister Sheikh Nasser Al-Mohammad Al-Sabah. Even though four is something new, Kuwait has witnessed three interpellations submitted at the same time twice before; earlier this year, and in 1986. Earlier this year it led to the Emir dissolving parliament and calling for new elections. In 1986, it was followed by a six year suspension of parliament. This is not to say that the three interpellations were the reason behind the long suspension of parliament in 86, but it does indicate that three interpellations may be a bit too much for the government and the royal family.

Yet, according to Kuwait Times, the PM himself said on 30th of November that “I’m ready to confront the interpellation – we are a state of institutions that is governed by the constitution”. But at the same time, pro-government MPs demand that the session with the interpellation of the PM is held behind closed doors. Faisal al-Muslim, the MP who submitted the interpellation against the PM, has answered that he will “re-submit” his “grilling-request” if the session will be closed.

At the same time, other events bear witness of rising tensions as well. During a heated parliamentary session in mid-November, parliamentary immunity was lifted for MPs Mohammad Hayef, Saadoun Hammad, Marzouk Al-Ghanem and Khaled Al-Sultan. In addition, some claim that freedom of expression is under attack in Kuwait. Journalist Mohammad Abdulqader Al-Jassem is currently in jail for  ”slandering the prime minister”, and accusations of government surveillance of blogs have surfaced in the media. However, this has caused Kuwait’s vibrant blogging community to react, and one should not underestimate their determination in having their say. To quote one blogger: “Kuwait has not yet become a police state”.

So while Kuwait is facing some difficult days ahead, it might not be as dramatic as newspaper headlines should indicate. Still, it is difficult to see just how the government will maneuver through all of this; they do not seem very keen on facing the interpellations, at least not in public. But to dissolve parliament and call for new elections doesn’t seem tempting either, as this would be the fourth election in three years. And for the government to resign and then be re-appointed, as they have done in similar situations before, seems unlikely. If it did, it would be the eight time in three years.  Then there’s the option of dissolving parliament and not calling for new elections, but rather to suspend parliament. This has been mentioned in some newspaper articles, and was also mention last winter during a quite similar crisis.

During the crisis last winter, some newspapers reported that parts of the royal family wanted to suspend the parliament, whereas others were opposed to this. This time, divisions within the royal family has once again surfaced in the media, but now as the cause for the crisis. MP Marzouq al-Ghanim (who just lost his parliamentary immunity) pointed to “ruling family intrigues” as one of the reasons behind Kuwait’s political chaos, whereas liberal MP Abdullah Al-Rumi  is quoted in Kuwait Times saying that “disputes within the ruling family could be destructive to Kuwait”, and that “You must put an end to these disputes that are impacting parliament and the whole country”. Former minister of information Dr. Anas al-Rashid (who resigned in 2006, protesting among other things the government’s position on the issue of the electoral districts) also points to the media: “It is unfortunate that a section of the media has been used as a means to settle political scores”.

Whatever the reasons, Kuwait is in a difficult political situation at the moment. As with most political crises, it is probably fair to assume that there are many reasons behind the current situation, of which conflict within the royal family might be one. And if there are sections of the royal family who want to suspend parliament, the current chaotic situation seems to fit their needs. As for how this situation will be resolved, I think political analyst Shafiq Ghabra put it nicely in Kuwait Times: “It has now got to a point in Kuwait when you can’t expect anything and when you can’t expect anything, then expect the unexpected”.

New session, same tensions

By: Jon Nordenson

The reopening of the Kuwaiti parliament after its summer break is drawing nearer, with two rather obvious questions perhaps being how long this parliament will last, and how many interpellations it will witness? Some MPs have already announced their intentions to “grill” ministers, seemingly gearing up for some stormy political months.

To start off with the interpellations, it might be some stormy months indeed. MPs have vowed to interpellate the Minister of Public Works and State Minister for Municipal Affairs over both accusations of corruption and the Mishref sewage plant scandal, as well as the Health Minister for failing to deal with the swine flu, Furthermore, MPs Ahmad al-Saadoun and Musallam al-Barrak plan to interpellate the Prime Minister sheikh Nassir Muhammed al-Ahmad over – among other thing – the Dow Chemicals deal. Moreover, information minister sheikh Ahmad Abdallah al-Sabah has been harshly criticized by MPs for banning privately-owned Scope TV’s political satire program Sawtak Wasal. Lastly, there is the difficult issue of the tragic al-Jahra fire.

The tragic fire took place in mid-August at a wedding celebration in al-Jahra district. The women`s tent caught fire, killing more than 40 women and children, and injuring more than 60. The former wife of the groom allegedly admitted using petrol to set the tent on fire, creating the deadliest civilian disaster in modern Kuwaiti history. MPs have accused the Government of not being prepared for such scenarios, claiming fire-fighters and ambulances arrived too late. An emergency session of the Parliament to look into the incident has been proposed, but MP’s have agreed to postpone thisuntil the investigation of the fire is finished.

As I have written earlier, interpellations – especially against al-Sabah members of the cabinet – have often led to the Emir dissolving parliament in the past. Still, the last thing parliament did before they went (to London and Beirut) for their summer holidays this year was not only to witness the interpellation of interior minister Sheikh Jaber Al-Khaled Al-Sabah, but to vote on a no confidence motion against him as well. And the parliament was not dissolved. So while the numerous interpellations certainly don’t strengthen the cooperation between cabinet and parliament, they do not necessarily lead to crisis. Furthermore, the last parliamentary election in Kuwait was held only a few months ago, perhaps another reason for the cabinet, the Emir and the parliament to deal with any forthcoming interpellations without forcing upon their people yet another election.

”In Kuwait, everything is politics…”

By: Jon Nordenson

“..and everyone is a politician”. The words are not mine, but I`ve heard them several times during my stay here in Kuwait. From the local co-ops to the unlucky football referees, it`s all politics.

To start off with football: the royal family is very involved in Kuwait`s football association, as well as in other sports associations, sometimes with conflicting agendas. Many view this as a problem, as for instance this blog, and Kuwait Times reports that the parliament has formed a committee to investigate the issue. Furthermore, the football clubs are – naturally – run by boards, to which there are elections. Joining these boards is seen as a good start to a political career, making the competition though. As I was told: “it`s basically a competition of who is willing to spend the most money to get elected”. Thus, the clubs are politicized, and, to a certain extent, their supporters as well. This – in turn – leaves the referee in a rather difficult position, and I`ve been told it`s not unusual for referees to get beaten up after games. And as I witnessed Kuwait`s Cup Final on Monday (22.06.2009), I did indeed see a somewhat frightened looking ref, who blew his whistle every single time someone fell, perhaps not wanting to upset the wrong people.

The local co-ops are another example. Residential areas in Kuwait are organized around local centers, which all contain a co-op. Who gets to run these co-ops, “is political”. As this illustrates, “politics” is sometimes synonymous with personal interests, as – I suppose – you can say about politics in pretty much every country in the world. Still, these interests, many times conflicting but sometimes coinciding are a dominant feature in Kuwaiti politics, that needs to be taken into account in order to understand how this country is run.

I pretty good example is the ongoing controversy around interior minister Sheikh Jaber Al-Khaled Al-Sabah. As I`vewritten earlier, MP Musallam Al-Barak “grilled” (interpellated) the minister this Tuesday (23.06.2009), around three issues: a contract for setting up boards during last year`s election, surveillance cameras in front of the parliament, and his alleged lack of effort to stop vote-buying.  Seemingly straightforward, many interests are involved.

For one thing, MP al-Barak is said to have promised his electorate to go forth with the interpellation, and indeed he did. The “grilling” took place in a special session of the parliament this Tuesday. After the debate, ten lawmakers put forth a motion of no confidence against the minister. The vote on the motion will be held next Wednesday (1st of July), and if 25 or more MPs support it, the minister will have to go.

9 of the 10 MPs who signed the motion were tribal, which – when talking about interests – may be important. As interior minister, Sheikh Jaber struck down on tribal primaries – officially forbidden – before the 2008 election, much to the annoyance of tribal candidates. Facing the no confidence vote, he claims the tribal MPs are out for revenge.

As mentioned, the vote will be held next Wednesday. Until then, the cabinet on the one side and al-Barak and his supporter on the other, will battle for the votes of still undecided MPs. A minister actually ousted through a vote in parliament is unheard of in Kuwait, so the vote will only take place if the cabinet is confident in having a majority. If not, the minister will resign, or be assigned to another ministry through a cabinet reshuffle. Therefore, the battle of the undecided is of every importance. As of Wedensday (24.06), al-Qabas newspaper reported that 18 MPs support al-Barak, 21 the government and 10 are undecided. Rumors hold that these ten MPs have close ties to minister Sheikh Ahmad al-Fahd (who also has a leading position in many of the country`s sports associations, and who was ousted from government in 2006), and that he is using their importance in this issue to gain influence in the cabinet. Though such claims are difficult to verify, I haven`t met anyone who objects that Kuwaiti politics is a mixture of many, many agendas.

And of course, in a country where everyone is a politician, very many follows these events closely. On Tuesday, people started queuing in front of the parliament at 7:00 am to follow the session. Several bloggers reported live from the parliament`s gallery, and newspaper al-Jaridah provides all details from the session as well.

So whatever one might think of Kuwaiti politics and Kuwait`s political system, one cannot ignore that it engages the Kuwaiti public. Still, whether or not this translates in active participation obviously varies; only 20,56% of the electorate cast their vote in Thursday`s (25.06) local elections.

Once again: grilling

By: Jon Nordenson

Less than a month has passed since the parliamentary elections, and barely a week since the inaugural session of the new Assembly. But still: a “grilling” request has been filed against a Sabah-member of the cabinet, this time by MPMuslim al-Barak of the Popular Action Bloc (كتلة العمل الشعبي ).

As I have written earlier, ”grilling” (interpellate, or in arabic:استجواب )is a constitutional right of Kuwaiti MPs to question cabinet ministers in parliament, and may in turn lead to a vote of no confidence. With the government wanting to avoid the humiliation of such a process, interpellations – especially when directed at cabinet members from the ruling a-Sabah family – have notoriously led to the cabinet resigning, or the Emir dissolving parliament. This, in turn, has left Kuwait in a status of permanent political crisis.

The results of the latest parliamentary election, held on May 16th, have been said to be a reaction to this crisis, with the electorate demanding stability and development rather than endless political quarrels. Still, the same electorate re-elected three of the five Islamist MPs who filed requests to interpellate ministers in the last parliament – thereby earning the nickname “crisis MPs” – as well as al-Barak, who made it perfectly clear during the election campaign that he would request to interpellate Interior Minister Sheikh Jaber Al-Khaled Al-Sabah, were the Minister to be re-appointed.

True to his word, al-Barak filed the request on June 8th, accusing the Minister of “squandering public funds, failure to prevent vote-buying and ordering the installation of cameras to spy on public rallies” (Kuwait Times, June 9th 2009). The big question, then, is of course: what will the government and the Emir do?

Following the election, the Emir called for cooperation between the cabinet and the parliament, and for an end to the ongoing crisis. Still, a new cabinet was appointed that contained names bound to cause the opposite. As mentioned above, grillings against Sabah-members of the cabinet has marked a red line for previous parliaments. However, it would seem rather absurd if the government were to resign, or the parliament to be dissolved, approximately three weeks after the election. From this point of view, we might be witnessing a rather momentous challenge to Kuwait`s democratic project.

On the other hand, the “grilling” request may never go so far. The government may demand to refer the request to the constitutional court to verify whether or not it is in line with the constitution. The government may also demand that the debate in parliament on the request will be held behind closed doors.

For the moment, the request is scheduled to be debated in the parliamentary session on June 23rd. If the debate takes place, the outcome may be rather grim.


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