Snap general elections called for Tuesday, 6 June came about following the resignation of the previous government headed by Prime Minister Ahmad Nawaf Al Ahmad Al Sabah in January. Additionally, in mid-March, the Constitutional Court in a separate ruling nullified the snap elections that were held in September 2022, and reinstated the parliament elected in 2020.

The court’s verdict was based on discrepancies it found in the decree dissolving parliament in August 2022. Accordingly, the government led by Prime Minister Sheikh Ahmad Al Nawaf Al Sabah once again took up office in early April. The cabinet has continued in a caretaker capacity following an Amiri decree in mid-April that dissolved the reinstated parliament, and called for fresh elections to be held in two months time, as mandated by the constitution.

The respect for judicial rulings and commitment to democratic and constitutional processes that paved the way for general elections on Tuesday, is indicative of the robustness of democracy, and adherence to the will of the people, in the country. The fact that the general elections will also be the third such ballot exercise in as many years, is also suggestive of how much more Kuwait needs to go and grow as a democratic nation.

As we await election results to assess the parliamentary lineup to a new term of the National Assembly, and the government gives final form to the 44th cabinet in Kuwait’s parliamentary history, we look at the evolution of democracy in Kuwait. We examine both the dynamism of democracy and its distortions by some quarters, which have prevented Kuwait from keeping up with the rapid pace of global and regional developments, and achieving its full potential.

Given the constraints and challenges that shackle democratic aspirations in the immediate region and the wider Arab world, the perseverance of democracy, with all its warts and wrinkles, for more than six decades in Kuwait is an achievement on its own. In a world where democratic traditions are facing a backlash from geopolitical influences, the vibrancy and resilience of democracy in Kuwait certainly deserves acknowledgement and appreciation by all.

Kuwait’s adherence to representative democracy, an elected parliament, and, in theory, a division of powers between different arms of government, as well as general elections every four years, if not earlier due to political exigencies, is a win for democracy worldwide. While the frequent elections could be construed by some people as a weakness of democracy, it could also charitably be interpreted as indicative of the dynamism of democracy in the country.

In this regard, it needs to be pointed out that democracy is not an alien concept implanted in Kuwait; the principles of discussion and reaching consensus on issues were evident among people as far back as the early 18th century, when several tribes coalesced into the nation that became Kuwait. In 1718, people in Kuwait deliberated among themselves and chose one among them, Sheikh Sabah I bin Jaber Al Sabah, to be their ruler and lead the newly founded nation forward.

The genesis of a Western concept of democracy with all its underpinnings in Kuwait, came about much later, following the country’s independence in 1961, when the then Amir, Sheikh Abdullah Al Salem Al Sabah, decided to choose a democratic and constitutional path of governance for the newly independent nation. However, Kuwait’s mode of democracy was unique in that it was based largely on local circumstances and regional influences, but also intertwined within it elements of Western democracy.

In December 1961, Sheikh Abdullah called for elections to be held to a Constituent Assembly to draft a constitution for Kuwait. Subsequently, on 11 November 1962, the constitution was promulgated as Law Number 1. Although articles of the constitution have been suspended twice, it is noteworthy that the document has not been amended in the past six decades and continues to constitute the basic tenet governing political life in Kuwait.

The constitution ensures the law applies equally to all people, and in the parliamentary context, it does not differentiate between elected legislators and appointed executives. The constitution also assigns a division of powers between the three arms of the government — the executive, the legislative and the judiciary — setting specific rights and responsibilities to the three entities.

The concept of equality and separation of powers under the constitution also introduces limitations on the powers wielded by each arm of the government, and in the functioning of the National Assembly. These restrictions encourage cooperation and collaboration between the executive and legislative in parliament, and compels both sides to find pragmatic solutions in order to better the lives of citizens and move the country forward on a path of progress and development.

In the event that the two sides cannot resolve their differences through debates, discussions and votes, the constitution also provides provisions for either resignation of cabinet or dissolution of parliament. As per Article 107 of the Kuwait constitution, the National Assembly can be dissolved by an Amiri decree, but elections for the new Assembly must be held within a period not exceeding two months from the date of the dissolution.

The dissolutions and dissonance in parliament witnessed in recent years are not the outcome of any shortcomings in the constitution, but rather in its interpretation by some legislators and in their understanding of democracy, based on Western concepts of this ideal. These lawmakers not only fail to adhere to both the letter and spirit of the constitution, but also fail to acknowledge that the democracy as practiced in Kuwait is different from Western concepts of it.

The constitution, and the democracy built on the foundation of this document, were crafted by the forefathers of this country specifically for Kuwait and based on the unique socio-political milieu prevailing in the land, as well as taking into consideration local cohesion and regional influences. The implementation of Western concepts of democracy, as championed by legislators who demand sweeping political and parliamentary reforms, is a notion that if implanted in its entirety could threaten constitutional equilibrium and prove dire for Kuwait.

Experts point out that democracy in Kuwait is based on two pillars: the people, as represented by legislators in parliament, and the country’s traditional political system built on a historical consensus. The two pillars must exist in harmony and equanimity, with each fulfilling its distinct roles and responsibilities, but without infringing on each other’s role, or attempting to impose its will on the other.

Clearly the executive and legislative arms of government need to put aside their differences and narrow vested interests and learn to work collaboratively for the good of the country and all of its people. In the meantime, even if there are no winds of change expected to blow in following Tuesday’s elections, wisps of change could waft in; especially given the government’s commitment to rejuvenate long dormant projects and policies.

Plans are reportedly underway to revive the tourism sector, increase employment opportunities for youth in the private sector, encourage local investments in Public-Private Partnerships, attract foreign investments, and inject capital into development of much-needed infrastructure projects. The government has already reiterated its intention to rejuvenate the Vision 2035 New Kuwait development plan that had been languishing of late.

The authorities are also pushing through the country’s digital transformation in a big way, with several global IT companies making their entry into the country in recent months, and expressing their interest to engage in developing Kuwait’s digital ecosystem. Minister of State for Communication and Information Technology, Mazen Al-Nahedh was recently quoted as saying that his ministry is forming a high-level committee to draw a national roadmap for overseeing the digital transformation of the country, and devising a digitalization master plan.

As part of the plan, the ministry is seeking the adoption of smart digital technologies that could innovate public services, drive the economy, and improve quality of life, while increasing operational efficiency and performance of key sectors. The digitalization of government services could also go a long way to ameliorating many of the challenges facing the country’s annual development plan, said the minister.

For his part, the Secretary-General of the Supreme Council for Planning and Development, Dr. Khaled Mahdi, addressing a forum in Kuwait, announced that in order to build a supportive environment for ‘New Kuwait 2035’ work was underway to transition the country to a knowledge economy that enhances competitiveness and diversifies economic bases.
On another front, and with the aim of developing the state’s non-oil revenues, creating job opportunities for national youth, and encouraging greater private sector participation in construction and development projects, the government has given the green light to the Kuwait Authority for Partnership Project (KAPP), to launch a package of projects for private sector investors to participate.

These proactive measures notwithstanding, the persistent standoffs in parliament between the government and some lawmakers, and its spillover into public life has led to discord and generated anxiety in society. This social dissonance has led to many among the public growing weary of democracy, or at least the version of democracy as practiced in Kuwait.
In October 2022, while inaugurating the first session of the 17th legislative term of the National Assembly, His Highness the Crown Prince Sheikh Meshal Al Ahmad Al Sabah had urged the executive and legislative members to open a new chapter in their relations and to work together with a focus on the country’s development and well-being of its citizens. Unfortunately, this advice went unheeded; the consensus that appeared to prevail in parliament at the start proved to be short-lived. In January 2023 the government tendered its resignation following yet another standoff with parliament.

With several of the same former lawmakers filing nominations and many of them expected to retain their seats, the makeup of the new parliament after the general elections on Tuesday may not be all that different from the one that was recently dissolved. The government for its part is likely to front the same cabinet, which is currently in a caretaker capacity, with only a few token changes in ministerial faces and portfolios to be expected.

Given the likely status quo in representatives and ministers, no major change can be expected in the functioning of parliament, or in implementing new laws and policies. We sincerely hope that we are wrong in our assessment, and that the new parliament sworn in after elections will cooperate and collaborate with the government to ensure Kuwait’s sustainable progress on all fronts, and to enhance the lives of all its people.

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