Kuwait activists seek "real" opposition, reform

Reuters News
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Posted: Dec 14, 2011 10:44 AM
Kuwait activists seek "real" opposition, reform

By Isabel Coles

DUBAI (Reuters) - Fed up with Kuwait's dysfunctional and divisive political system, a group of activists is vying to make itself heard over the incessant bickering between government loyalists and the opposition they say are both to blame for the Gulf state's woes.

The loose coalition including academics and professionals are hoping to distance themselves from the established opposition and rally others behind them to root out corruption they say is endemic and steer the country towards full democracy.

"What we're really looking for is the real opposition, but we couldn't find it," said Kuwaiti columnist Lama al-Othman, who held up a sign reading "No to the government. No to the opposition" at a recent protest outside parliament.

"We don't want half democracy," she added.

The Gulf Arab state has long prided itself on having a fully-elected parliament with legislative power and lively debate -- unique in a region ruled by autocrats who tolerate little if any dissent.

But frustration has been brewing beneath a political stalemate that is holding up vital reforms and development projects in the country, the world's no. 6 biggest oil exporter with just 3.6 million people.

Tensions boiled over last month when hundreds of men led by opposition lawmakers stormed the parliament in protest against then-prime minister Sheikh Nasser al-Mohammed al-Sabah, whom they accuse of misdeeds ranging from graft to failing to stop the sale of rotten meat.

They got their way on November 28 when Sheikh Nasser resigned and parliament was later dissolved. But it was seen by some as a hollow victory unlikely to end Kuwait's political impasse.

"The government's resignation doesn't represent the real reform that is demanded. Our constitutional system has reached a state of stalemate and is in urgent need of structural reform, not the same old political moves," said blogger Jassim al-Qamis.

"This may act as a temporary remedy, but it's not the solution."

In Sheikh Nasser's five years in office, seven cabinets have been shuffled and the emir has had to dissolve parliament and call early elections three times.

Formal political parties are not allowed, which means individual opposition politicians are forced to rely on forming blocs in parliament.

POLITICAL QUAGMIRE

Analysts and activists say the deadlock is not the fault of democracy, but of Kuwait's version of it -- a version that encourages the consultation that is deeply rooted in Kuwait's political tradition without seriously threatening the ruling family, which has held power since the mid-18th century.

"Democracy in Kuwait is incomplete, it's not real democracy," said columnist Ahmed al-Dayeen. "There must be new political solutions or else we will continue to go around in this meaningless circle."

The structure of the political system is unique. The emir, Sheikh Sabah al-Ahmad al-Sabah, appoints a prime minister who in turn handpicks his 16-member cabinet, mostly from the ranks of the ruling family.

At least one member of the cabinet must come from the 50 elected Kuwaitis who make up the country's parliament.

Parliament initiates legislation, but cabinet ministers also vote, forming a key bloc which inevitably votes in favour of the government, diluting opposition or swinging a majority.

The only circumstance in which ministers cannot vote is in the case of a motion of no confidence, which can be brought with the support of at least 10 members of parliament after a question-and-answer session in the assembly.

A simple parliamentary majority is enough to pass such a motion, which explains why governments are so often reshuffled. Members of parliament have in the past stepped down to avoid being grilled.

Critics say the system encourages -- maybe even necessitates -- patronage as a tool for political survival.

The public prosecutor has opened an investigation into suspiciously large deposits in the bank accounts of 13 parliamentarians. Their identities have not been disclosed, but opposition politicians are already accusing pro-government MPs of taking bribes.

Activists say that's not enough.

"We're hoping to cure the disease itself, not the symptoms only," said columnist Othman.

"We want an elected government, we want separation of authorities, we need supervision of the constitutional court and an end to the ban on political parties."

SELFISH CLASH

Outside parliament, outspoken opposition MPs have taken their demands to the street, joining youth groups emboldened by popular uprisings across the region this year.

Some activists and even several parliamentarians themselves say these MPs are co-opting the movement for their own political ends.

"I'm against the opposition leaders because to me the movement should be led by the youth. The leaders should not be from MPs who have certain political agendas," said Fatema Hayat, a former opposition activist who was part of a successful youth-led 2006 campaign to cut the number of electoral districts to 5 from 23.

She and others disillusioned with the current system point out that for all their political posturing, some MPs now in opposition were once pro-government and vice-versa.

Behind the scenes, rival al-Sabah princes are using parliament to fight a proxy war against each other and position themselves to be prime minister in future, political analysts say.

"Until we have a true public movement that clearly separates itself from the opposition, the general view will always think of this as another selfish clash between the two powers in the country; the parliament and the government (or in some cases, the ruling family)," wrote blogger Mona Kareem.

Another big factor in the failure, so far, to turn dissatisfaction into "real" opposition is Kuwait's wealth, which makes politics at most a secondary concern for the majority.

Thanks to Kuwait's oil wealth, the country has a per capita income of $37,000, the IMF estimated in 2010. The government devoted about one-fifth of its expenditure to oil-related benefits and subsidies for its 1.1 million nationals in fiscal 2010/11, which ended in March.

"The majority of the people in Kuwait really don't care about what's going on because on a personal level they're getting chalets, money and as long as they have them, why would they go out in a protest?" said Kareem.

(Editing by Sami Aboudi and Sonya Hepinstall)