Democracy involves more than conducting periodic free and fair election exercises that allow people to choose men and women to represent them in parliament; it is more than having a democratic model of governance with an elected parliament and an independent executive, legislative, and judicial wings, or having a vibrant free-wheeling political backdrop for a government and opposition to function in.

It involves more than having a framework of political, economic, social and civil rights and liberties guaranteed to citizens by a Constitution; or having a vigilant media that diligently monitors and impartially reports on events. These are all just institutions and practices of democracy.

According to the Inter-Parliamentary Union (IPU) — the global organization representing national parliaments from around the world — at its core, democracy involves adherence to a set of ideals based on two very simple principles: first, that the people should have the determining influence and control over the rules and policies enacted on their behalf, through participation in deliberations about their common interest; second, that in doing so they should treat each other, and be treated, as equals. How effectively the ideals are adhered to and realised in practice is the touchstone of how democratic any country can claim to be, said the IPU in a new book published on parliament and democracy in the twenty-first century.

When framed against this view as expressed by the IPU, democracy and its practice in Kuwait leaves a lot more to be realized. This shortcoming was underscored by no other than the current Speaker of Kuwait’s National Assembly, Marzouq Ali Al-Ghanim. In his keynote address at the 143rd iteration of the annual assembly of the Inter-Parliamentary Union (IPU) held under the theme, ‘Contemporary challenges to democracy: Overcoming division and building community’, Speaker Al-Ghanim said that superficial rhetorical discussions were not sufficient to address the challenges facing democracy, and that it was necessary to put aside slogans and purported “sanctities” when addressing the challenges posed to democracy.

The five-day IPU convention, which was held in Madrid, Spain from 26 to 30 November, provided delegates with a platform to discuss, exchange views and seek ways to spur parliamentary action to uphold and promote democracy around the world, in line with the IPU motto of ‘For democracy. For everyone’. Among the challenges confronting modern democracy that were debated in the assembly were rising social divisions against the backdrop of dwindling confidence in political establishments, growing polarization, and the deliberate dissemination of specious arguments and misleading information on social media platforms.

Speaker Al-Ghanim, who headed Kuwait’s parliamentary delegation to the IPU, clarified in his address that in order to overcome the contemporary challenges confronting democracy, it was necessary to have “in-depth culture and intelligence, as well as a broad understanding of core issues involved, namely the current practice of democracy, the obstacles it faces, as well as the social, economic and cultural dimensions attached to the issue”. He went on to note, “Democracy is a means, not an objective; it is a practice, not a slogan; and we ought not to turn into slaves for political paganism or legal statue, even if they carry a democratic name.

“We should not be afraid when we point the finger at wrong practices; for democracy is not sacred and nothing should prohibit efforts to correct or guide it where the practices are not right.” Pointing out that “shielding any ruling regime, even if it had a democratic form, was the main obstacle to reviewing, renewing and remedying its drawbacks,” the Speaker noted that criticism of some “erroneous practices in the democratic system and examining it regularly”, was not aimed at undermining the governing regime, but rather safeguarding it.

If anyone would know this, it has to be Speaker Al-Ghanim. Since 2006, for the past 15 years, he has been a member of Kuwait parliament, and for the past seven years he has been at the helm of the National Assembly presiding over it as Speaker. His knowledge of the pernicious foibles and faultlines that exist in the parliamentary life of Kuwait, as well as his experiences in steering the National Assembly through the tenacious political turbulences witnessed in recent years, have made him adroit in handling the recurring contentious relations between the executive and legislative branches of government.

Though the opposition in parliament see him as a government supporter, and the government eyes him as being too liberal in his leanings, it appears that he is the only person who can tamp down the populism and polarization exhibited by the two sides, and find a viable middle-ground that is critical to ensure efficient functioning of Kuwait’s democratic bastion going forward.

In his address to the IPU, and probably speaking from first-hand experiences gained from his involvement over the years in Kuwait’s parliamentary, semi-democratic style of governance, Kuwait’s National Assembly chief pointed to some of the perils arising from a democracy that strays away from its basic principles, and a dysfunctioning parliament that is unable or unwilling to carry out its responsibilities.

The Speaker underscored that “democracy could encounter serious threats and challenges when society witnesses sharp polarization and parties get embroiled in irresponsible conflicts”. It is obvious that factors driving such polarization, including growing economic divide and persistent inequalities, as well as the exclusion of some societal groups from political discourse, can only be overcome through enlightened leadership exhibiting a strong political will.

Reiterating the view expressed by Speaker Al-Ghanim, the Madrid Declaration announced at the end of the 143rd IPU assembly on 30 November, noted that polarization and populism undermine democratic systems, and that parliamentary leadership was crucial to bridging divides and moving society forward in cohesion and concert. The document noted that while these social and political divides are not new concepts, in recent years the level of this polarization has reached new heights.

In its opening remarks the declaration pointed out that the world is striving to overcome a wide array of challenges created by social, political, economic and health-related upheavals. Societal divides and the deterioration of social peace are having an impact on the state of democracy, and in particular on the institutions that put democratic values into practice. In order to address the contemporary challenges to democracy, it was vital to overcome social divisions, unite instead of divide people, foster hope not hate, and join forces to seek common ground.

The document added that while partisan competition is normal and healthy, intense polarization carries significant risks. It penetrates society as a whole and affects everyday interactions among ordinary people. It has the potential to damage the culture of tolerance, increase conflict and widen distrust. It can also severely undermine the effectiveness of democratic institutions.

Amid the growing cacophony and dissonance that regularly rise from the hallowed halls of the Abdulla Salem Hall of the National Assembly, parliamentarians in Kuwait need to re-read the lines drafted in the Madrid Declaration, and perhaps, for once, listen to the voice of reason from their Speaker.

The IPU declaration goes on to note that political compromise is a core of the democratic process and that the ability to reach agreements, cooperate across political divides and prioritize public interests over party politics contributes to depolarization and sustainable social peace. Reaching consensus through trade-off between competing norms or values which cannot all be maximised simultaneously, is no doubt difficult, but it is a balancing act that needs to be perfected for democratic societies to flourish.

In Kuwait, parliament has over the years lived up to its role of monitoring and scrutinizing policies and projects put forward by the government for social, economic and cultural development of the country. It has assiduously amended or scrapped policies and projects that it conceived to be against the interests of citizens, and questioned ministers when they failed to live up to their duties, or allegedly engaged in activities deemed harmful to the state and its people.

These actions are what one would expect from conscientious lawmakers and is the reason why they were elected in the first place. But when these questioning of ministers at every whim and fancy, and thwarting the implementation of any policy brought forward by the government, based on personal and narrow parochial interests of individual parliamentarians and their groups takes precedence, it runs against the norms expected of parliamentarians as outlined by the IPU, and more importantly comes at an enormous cost to the growth and development of the country and the future of its people.

The IPU document also emphasized that a core function of the parliamentary ecosystem is to promote trust in democracy and reinforce the relevance of representative institutions. Political leaders and elected officials bear responsibility for demonstrating respect for democratic values through their words and actions, the IPU stated. It added that wider societal coherence can be built by avoiding poisonous rhetoric, demonstrating a willingness to cooperate across party lines, and promoting evidence-based decision-making.

The declaration also noted the growing perception among people that the political establishment is losing touch with the population has fuelled the rise of populism and deepened societal divides. Pointing out that politics founded on confrontation and division undermines the legitimacy of the system as a whole, the IPU declaration expressed concern that increased polarization was reducing opportunities to build broad coalitions in society and implement bold public policies to address urgent social and economic issues including in confronting the global threat of climate change and pandemics.

In Kuwait the parliamentary ecosystem is characterized by the presence of lawmakers and factions that reflect the polarization that already exists in the country along social, ethnic and political faultlines. Evident divisions along sectarian lines, discernible divides between urban-rural populations, and between liberal, Islamists, and tribal factions, as well as imperceptible divisions that prevails in society are mirrored in the individuals who make their way into parliament, and in the various groupings they form in parliament after each election.

Despite the seeming need to exhibit fidelity to, and conform with, the parochial divides that brought them to parliament, the lawmakers have for the most part missed the opportunity presented to them to help heal social rifts. They have failed to leverage their vantage seat in the National Assembly to build inclusive societies, or to promote trust in democracy and its institutions, as demanded of responsible parliamentarians and as repeatedly exhorted by the IPU.

If anything, the actions and antics of parliamentarians, and the use of unparliamentary language, which appears to have become the lingua franca of some lawmakers, during recent parliamentary proceedings have only helped to exacerbate rather than ameliorate the perceived differences among people, and have only deepened the fractures and widened the social chasms that exist in the country.
In his address to the IPU, Speaker Al-Ghanim also warned that in the shadow of a weak democratic system, social media platforms could turn into an arena for strife among intelligence agencies, ransom seekers and criminals, who infest these platforms with rumors, half-truths, and misleading information aimed at fomenting primitive and barbaric strifes of sectarian nature and furthering populism and polarization in society. The polarizations evident in parliament today have probably existed since Kuwait first evolved as a society, the heightened tensions currently evident can in no small measure be attributed to the deliberate misinformation and rumors spread through social media platforms.

The polarization evident today is probably the outcome of incisions that appeared in the early relationship between the rulers and the wealthy merchant elites in society, who were the main source of finances for the government in the early days of Kuwait’s history. However, the revenue that began to flow into the country following the discovery and export of oil in the mid-20th century, rattled the then prevailing social status quo and empowered the rulers with the resources to function without support from the elites, and enabled them to flex their new-found powers.

The dichotomy in relations between rulers and society, or at least the elite families in society, led to two unequal but nevertheless powerful factions in the country. The fricions that followed eroded the spirit of consultation, consensus and cooperation that earmarked earlier relations, and probably sowed the early seeds of polarizations in society. The divisions continued to simmer even after the country gained its independence in 1961, and decided to pursue a democratic model of governance, endowed with a Constitution, a Parliament and elected representatives.

The political frictions that were apparent from the days of the first parliament, have evolved over the years, with more factions joining the fray and widening the rift. Uneasy, temporary alliances have also cropped up from time to time between the various factions in support of, or in opposition to, the government. Parliamentary turbulence over the years has resulted in Kuwait ending up with an iconic Parliament building that on the outside trumpets its democratic credentials, but has in large measure become a dysfunctional institution on the inside.

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