The return of lawmakers to parliament on 25 October for the second-session of the 16th legislative-term has once again heated up the political environment in Kuwait.

An extraordinary session of parliament held on 7 November Sunday, witnessed the announcement by National Assembly Speaker Marzouq Al-Ghanim that His Highness the Amir Sheikh Nawaf Al-Ahmad-Al-Jaber Al-Sabah had decided to use his constitutional prerogative under Article 75, which states that the ‘Amir may, by decree, grant a pardon or commute a sentence…’ to grant amnesty to several political dissidents. Shortly after this announcement, the government tendered its resignation to His Highness the Amir, in what is seen as an apparent move to facilitate the parliamentary reconciliation process urged by the Amir.

Among the political dissidents who reportedly were granted amnesty under the Amiri pardon are former opposition lawmaker Musallam Al-Barrak, as well as other former parliamentarians and their supporters, who had been sentenced to various jail terms for their role in storming the parliament nearly nine years ago in 2011. Many of those granted amnesty had left the country before the court verdict against them was issued and are said to be in self-imposed exile in Turkey and other neighboring states.

Media reports also indicate that as many as 67 people convicted of various offenses are to benefit from the two Amiri pardons announced on Sunday. Among the beneficiaries are people who have been convicted and are currently serving jail sentences for their part in the Abdali Cell case, who will now have their sentences commuted, and other jailed political dissidents who will have their sentences now reduced by half.

A month earlier, His Highness the Amir Sheikh Nawaf Al-Ahmad-Al-Jaber Al-Sabah had urged the executive and legislative authorities in parliament to open a dialogue to facilitate effective cooperation to overcome obstacles that hinder growth and development of the country.

Also, a week ahead of parliament’s reconvening, His Highness the Amir had instructed heads of the three government authorities — the executive, the legislative and the judiciary — to propose regulations and conditions of amnesty for some political dissidents.

The amnesty for political dissidents comes in the wake of incessant demands by some opposition lawmakers for a pardon to those sentenced to jail for their role in ‘storming the parliament’. These lawmakers have been holding up parliamentary proceedings since January under various pretexts, and have threatened to continue doing so unless an amnesty was granted.

The measures initiated by His Highness the Amir evidently stems from his keen desire to see the executive and legislative arms of the government come together and work cohesively for the benefit of the people and the country. The amnesty is also seen as a step to create a climate conducive to rapprochement and reconciliation in parliament, and to appease those lawmakers who have been hampering the smooth functioning of parliament so far during the 16th legislative term.

In his announcement on the Amiri pardon in parliament, the National Assembly Speaker Marzouq Al-Ghanim said the amnesty will pave the way for the country to turn a “new page” and for the parliament to focus on “important pending matters”. Included in the pending matters are said to be, balancing the national budget, boosting state finances and tapping global debt markets. However, going by factual evidence from past attempts to placate opponents., we would say this is, at best, wishful thinking on the part of the Speaker.

Previous attempts at conciliation have clearly shown the futility of the process, no matter in what form it was implemented. Appeasements have not worked before, and there is no reason to believe that it will work this time around. Attempts in this regard will invariably lead only to a more invigorated and emboldened opposition who are likely to raise the bars on their demands. In the future, they will once again hold the functioning of parliament to ransom until their dictates are conceded to by a further weakened government, no matter what it costs to the country in terms of finances or in the path of progress.

This has been evident to all those who deeply care for the country and its continued prosperity, and to those who can read between the lines and impartially study the evolving political situation in Kuwait. The best outcome that the government can hope from the current amiri amnesty and cabinet resignation is a temporary truce with the opposition lawmakers in parliament. Hopefully, this will allow the authorities enough leeway to push through several urgently required financial reforms, including perhaps, the long-delayed public debt bill, or at least a watered-down version of it.

Media reports emerging since the announcement of the amiri amnesty indicate that the opposition is likely to withdraw, if only slightly, from its confrontational path in parliament. And, in a token gesture, it could end the current impasse by not persisting with their demand to question the premier in parliament on various issues, or stipulating that the parliamentary motion granting His Highness the Prime Minister immunity from questioning until the end of 2022, be rescinded.

The temporary truce is also likely to see a toning down of rhetoric on other contentious issues and an end to the parliamentary paralysis that has crippled legislative work since the start of the year. It is also possible that a consensus could be arrived at on topics ranging from boosting state finances, to enacting limited fiscal and economic reforms, and perhaps even passing the long-overdue debt law needed to tap global markets.

The current amnesty and cabinet resignations notwithstanding, there is no doubt that soon enough the opposition will revert to its true self and once again thwart any meaningful reforms, scuttle vital project implementations, and continue to raise frivolous objections to policies and procedures proposed by the government, despite its importance to the country’s growth and progress.

The political writing on the proverbial wall is clear for all willing to read it. Political appeasements never work, and have never worked before, because they only tend to address superficial symptoms, without tackling the deep and long-festering underlying causes of the malaise.

However, addressing these deep-rooted political shortcomings requires acute awareness and understanding of the problem, and a willingness to rectify these challenges. But pursuing such a course of action involves spending time and effort on becoming fully cognizant on the various aspects of the real problems underpinning political and social disquiet in the country. It also demands painful concessions and compromises from all sides, and a willingness to reach a mid-way point acceptable to all stakeholders.

The high level of commitment to finding lasting solutions to political and social challenges also requires hard and diligent work on the part of both the appointed government and the elected parliament. But, despite this apparent need, the general consensus among parliamentarians is why exert the extra effort, when it is far more facile to shout about corruption and call for ‘grilling’ of ministers, or to repeatedly hamper parliamentary proceedings under one pretext or another.

Similarly, it is much easier for the government to react to situations and problems with assuaging short-term remedies, than to take proactive and long-term consequential measures focused on the greater good of the nation, even if they prove to be unpopular and painful to citizens and their pockets. The government has also often found it more expedient to resign, realign ministerial portfolios, and reappear in a new avatar, than to address the real issues facing the country.

Analysts and experts in the country and abroad concur that the country urgently needs to get its act together to prevent an economic, and probably social, meltdown in the not too distant future. Everyone also agrees on the urgency of implementing essential fiscal, economic and administrative reforms, and the need for the country to balance its budget. In addition, the government, the opposition and most thinking people on the street acknowledge that the ‘nanny state’ that has characterized the country and its relationship with citizens since the time of independence cannot continue forever.

Most people also realize that the day of reckoning when international demand for oil, which forms the economic lifeline of the country, begins to falter, dwindle and eventually dry up completely, is not too distant in the future. The need for various reforms, however painful they may be to individuals and families, is widely recognized even by its most die-hard opponents. And, even if there is no uniform consensus on this score, there is a strong undercurrent of thought that holds the view that the government needs to balance the budget and prevent recurring deficits.

Despite the widespread unanimity on the challenges facing the country and the painful reforms and solutions needed to counter it, there is also a strong undercurrent that counterbalances this in the form of unwillingness to forgo the prodigious handouts and subsidies, or the cradle-to-grave welfare provided by the state. Catering to this deep down sentiment among the public, the government is also now less than keen to pursue unpopular fiscal and economic reforms that could impact the pockets of citizens, or rattle the delicate political balance that the executive has managed to foster among sections of the public.

Moreover, the government is now in a firmer driving position than it was a couple of months ago — with international oil prices above $80 per barrel in recent weeks, nearly double of what it was during the height of the pandemic in 2020, and the state treasury, the GRF which was on the verge of depletion, is once again beginning to fill up, so the authorities can afford to wind down its reform initiatives.

This situation is nothing new; it has been a perennial problem of governance in Kuwait. Every time oil prices fall and revenue shrinks the government begins to cry hoarsely about the need for economic reforms, and starts to eagerly pursue various austerity measures. But the moment oil prices turn around and head in the opposite direction, all pleas for austerity and reforms are forgotten, and the mood swings to “happy days are here again”, so forget unwelcome reforms and let us loosen the purse-strings and spend like there is no tomorrow.

Oil prices that have in recent years fluctuated between highs and lows at the slightest international turbulence, invariably cause a major impact on Kuwait’s revenues and its economy, and hampers the ability of policymakers to balance income and expenditure. For instance, at the height of the pandemic in 2020,when oil prices fell precipitously, the state treasury, the General Reserve Fund (GRF), faced a severe liquidity crunch that even threatened the government’s day to day operations.

Attempts by the authorities to borrow on the international debt market by attempting to pass a public debt bill in parliament, did not make any headway despite the dire financial situation. The contentious public debt law that would allow the country to approach global debt markets has remained stalled in parliament due to political opposition to it since October 2017, after the previous bill elapsed.

Eventually, the government was compelled to hock valuable state assets in the GRF to the cash corpulent Future Generations Fund (FGF) in exchange for cash to run government operations. Although this was only an internal adjustment by two public entities, the fact that the government had to resort to these dire economic measures point to the substantial impact that a sustained low oil price scenario has on the country, and the crucial need for the government and parliament to work together to resolve the political impasse in parliament .

The latest moves by the government to submit its resignation to His Highness the Amir, and the steps taken to grant amnesty to political dissidents, may bring about an informal truce between the executive and legislative. But the real question is, how long will this respite prevail before the next round of disruptions erupt, and the government responds with its tried and tested formula of resignation, cabinet reshuffle, and eventually a dissolution of parliament and new elections.

This scenario has played out multiple times in the past at the expense of Kuwait’s growth and development on all fronts. Political instability has affected the country’s ability to lure in investments, find employment opportunities for its youth, increase private sector participation in the market, and to gradually disassociate the overwhelming dependence of the economy on its hydrocarbon resources.

It is quite obvious that the time is long overdue for everyone to sit together and hold purposeful discussions, and to think along the lines of whether the country can afford yet another political standoff that has already caused severe repercussions to the country’s finances, economy and social welfare of citizens. It is also time to think of the impact that the political instability is having on the country’s reputation and relevance among countries in the region and on the international stage.

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