Posts Tagged 'Sheikh Jaber'

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.

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.