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Spring Election Crossroads for Kuwait

KUWAIT CITY -- The recent resignation of members of the Kuwaiti government and subsequent dissolution of parliament reflects severe structural imbalances and an ongoing conflict between a government lacking in strategy and a parliament lacking in vision.

The challenge for Kuwait today is to take advantage of next month's election to shift strategy and prepare for privatization, smaller government, good governance and a diversified modern economy. To succeed, the government must find a way to support meritocracy, open the way for international and regional investment, and relax cultural restrictions surrounding co-education, tourism, women’s rights in the social and personal spheres, entertainment and censorship.

Since the steep 2003 rise in oil prices, Kuwaiti MPs have dedicated their time to spending surplus revenue, not on development but on benefits for government-sector employees – some 90 percent of Kuwaitis work for the state. In one failed attempt, parliamentarians championed forgiving personal loans by the state for all Kuwaitis; another successful effort sought larger stipends for students studying in free public universities. Such proposals were viewed as key to securing re-election.

MPs were particularly keen on appealing to Kuwaitis of Bedouin origin – the country’s new majority – who consider themselves economically deprived relative to the urban commercial elite.

The MPs have increasingly resembled unionists, pressuring government for more concessions for employees. The emir dissolved parliament on March 21, 2008, one day before the parliamentary vote on a bill proposing a second salary increase in a month for government employees.

Most MPs have adopted a somewhat populist, anti-business position advocating more restrictions and regulations on the commercial sector. One battle after another left the government exhausted. Major companies, including Zain (leader in telecommunications), began moving offices to Bahrain, the United Arab Emirates and other nearby countries. None of this sat well with a government that had declared its intent to turn the country into a financial and commercial center.

The government also had other worries. In February, tensions grew between Shi'as, who comprise 30 percent of the population, and majority Sunnis when two Shi'a MPs attended a rally to honor Imad Mughniyah. Mughniyah, a Hezbullah commander, was assassinated in Damascus that month in an attack his supporters claimed was orchestrated by Israel.

Mughniyah was believed to have been involved in the hijacking of two Kuwaiti Airlines planes and a series of bombings in Kuwait. The government mishandled the public’s reaction, which resulted in verbal attacks against the two Shi'a MPs, including threats to strip them of their nationality by other members of parliament.

In addition, a conservative social agenda appeared to gain advantage in parliament. The Islamist bloc sought to implement a law on gender segregation that many universities, as well as the liberal parliamentary bloc, opposed. They also wanted to apply the law to co-educational British and American high schools. Students and community-based organizations rallied against the measure.

In Fall 2007 the parliament passed a bill forbidding women to work in certain areas deemed “difficult” for their gender (industrial work, heavy equipment, construction) and banned women from working beyond 8 p.m. in most jobs. Such laws alienated the liberal sectors of society and the business community.

Despite these challenges, Kuwaitis continue to exercise their right to speak their mind. In 2007, for example, the government banned talk shows from public television, including this writer’s weekly program, but similar shows and provocative discussions continue to be broadcast on private stations and satellite channels in the region. The country has 12 daily newspapers and Kuwaiti bloggers are writing extensively; fully regulating public expression has become an impossible task for the state.

Parliamentary elections scheduled for next month will allow Kuwaitis to select representatives from five large districts, instead of the previous 25. Many MPs were previously elected through vote buying, which will be much harder to accomplish with approximately 70,000 voters per district. The elections will also feature more individuals running on political lists such as the Islamic, liberal, Shi'a, nationalist and tribal ones. This coming election will have a smaller role for independent candidates.

During the past two years Kuwait has experienced a division within. On the one hand, people have supported MPs who can bring about transparency in government and benefits to the districts, while on the other, they have wanted a government able to make critical decisions on development, rule of law, education and privatization.

Most Kuwaitis see their country lagging behind neighboring nations in development, administration, education and services but ahead in democratic freedoms, transparency and rights. Kuwait must ultimately create a model for society and government capable of successfully merging democracy and development, while prioritizing both.

Shafeeq Ghabra is professor of political science at Kuwait University and President of the Jusoor Arabiya Leadership & Consultancy Company, which is dedicated to meeting the challenges of future development and reform in the Arab world. This article was written for the Common Ground News Service (CGNews).

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