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Kuwait’s Political Adolescence: The Controversies of Constitutional Reform

Dr. Fatima AlMatar, Kuwait University, Department of Public Law

The political situation of Kuwait today resembles 17th century Britain, where the Amir[1] still has the power to dissolve parliament whenever he pleases so long as he provides a reason for doing so, and so long as the parliament is not dissolved again on the same grounds (article 107).

At first glance Kuwait seems a unique case in the sense that it is the only country in the GCC where a form of a democracy is practiced via a written constitution and an elected parliament. A closer look reveals an ostensible democracy. Coined by Lewin and Lippitt in 1938, the term describes a model of leadership where a thin layer of democracy is implemented to mask coercion under the guise of participatory group processes.

Kuwait’s current constitution, written in 1962, is not the country’s first attempt at democracy.

In 1938 a short lived constitution existed. Prior to oil, the Amir depended on taxes levied from the leading merchants to cover modest public spending. In return, the merchants were included in political decision making. When an oil concession was signed and royalties were paid directly from the British company to the Amir, the position of the merchants shifted, no longer the Amir’s main source to funds they lost political privileges. The Amir could now spend from oil revenues and provide public sector jobs for the population once dependent on the merchants for livelihood.

In addition to political power the merchants aspired to a share from oil revenues, allying themselves with a dissident fraction of Alsabah family, compelling the Amir to accept a national assembly and a constitution, they claimed the British Agent is intervening in all Kuwait’s domestic matters and as the people they demanded their say.

The 1938 constitution designated the nation as the source of authority represented by the assembly, banned treaties or concessions which did not obtain assembly’s consent, and appointed the assembly’s president as the executive authority in the country. Fourteen members were elected and a member of the ruling family Abdullah Alsabah presided the assembly, an elitist affair where only leading merchants and dissident members of Alsabah were included.

When the assembly attempted to assert control over oil revenues and its ambitions grew uncomfortable for the British Agent[2], the Amir dissolved it and abandoned the constitution all together after five months of its formation going back to the old authoritarian rule.

In 1950 Abdullah Alsabah brought radical reform to Kuwait, starting by ending the British protectorate treaty in 1961 an agreement in force since 1899 to protect Kuwait from the Ottoman Empire, approved the 1962 constitution which provides “Kuwait’s system of government is democratic; sovereignty is vested in the nation as the source of all authority; and the exercise of that sovereignty shall be as set out in this constitution” (article 6), and an elected parliament came into power in 1963.

Although the first election in Kuwait was described as free, the government interfered in later elections ensuring more docile MPs. Each time MPs became too vocal for the Amir, parliament was dissolved; dissolved eight times since its inception; 1976, 1986, 1989, 1999, 2008, 2009, 2011 and 2012.

The 1962 constitution was considered an upgrade from the historical authoritarian rule, civil rights and freedoms became constitutionally protected. “Personal Liberty is guaranteed” in article 30; “freedom of belief is unrestricted” in article 35; “Freedom of opinion is guaranteed” in article 36; “Freedom of the press and the publication is guaranteed” in article 37.

Another perspective suggests the constitution merely safeguards the sovereignty of Alsabah. “Kuwait is a hereditary Emirate held in succession in the descendants Mubarak Alsabah”, according to article 4; “The Amir is the Head of State, his person is safeguarded and inviolable” under article 54. The latter article in particular authorized many arrests in recent years of anyone who criticizes the ruler or government, alleges or seeks to prove the corruption of officials or objects to the extreme deterioration of public services and standards of living.

In 2011, in the heat of the Tunisian, Libyan and Egyptian uprisings, Kuwait also went through a political upheaval, a scandal involving the Prime Minister’s abuse of public funds had spread and people took their anger to the streets protesting and demanding his resignation. Calls for an elected PM (not a member of Alsabah) began to rise. The constitution gives the Amir the power to appoint the PM (article 56). The appointing of ministers belongs to the PM, and both are answerable to the Amir in all policies of the country (article 58). This system of power-sharing among those already in power leads to durable ruling coalitions.

The people’s frustration deepened when the Amir dissolved a popular parliament with a majority of opposition MPs in 2012, and in the absence of parliament issued a decree–another superpower granted to him by article 71–to reform the electoral law unilaterally.

The electoral law divides the country into five districts; ten candidates were elected in each district and gave each voter four votes, reformed to only one vote for each voter. When the Amir’s actions were challenged before the constitutional court arguing that the new voting system would consistently produce pro-government legislatures. The court ruled both actions constitutionally sound. The following election (2013) attracted less than 30% of the people (the lowest in the history of Kuwait).

Constitutions have a life span. The alleged liberties and freedoms the constitution has brought may have been sufficient in the past, however, globalization, social networking, education, awareness, social change and the fact that 70% of the Kuwaiti population is under the age of 29 indicate that reform is inevitable. If change is not initiated by government, peaceful demonstration will continue to push toward rationalizing the political process and amending the 52 year old constitution.

Suggested Citation: Fatima AlMatar, Kuwait’s Political Adolescence: The Controversies of Constitutional Reform, Int’l J. Const. L. Blog, Apr. 3, 2015, at: http://www.iconnectblog.com/2015/03/kuwaits-political-adolescence-the-controversies-of-constitutional-reform

[1] Kuwait is a monarchy, ruled by Alsabah family, the Prince ruling the state is known in Arabic as Amir or Shaikh, the Amir is nominated by a family council headed by the most senior and prominent members of the Alsabah, the leadership is not strictly hereditary although some Amirs have succeeded their fathers’.

[2] The British agent had supported the idea of the assembly until it grew too vocal.

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Published on April 3, 2015
Author:          Filed under: Analysis, New Voices
 

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