Friday, December 15, 2006

Kuwaiti Democracy

In Kuwait, on the other hand, you can actually speak of democratic institutions waging a battle for influence against the monarchy. Nathan Brown updates us on the state of play:
"The problem for the opposition has been to maintain unity. It has certainly tried, first mustering the votes to pass the electoral reform and then moving to develop a more comprehensive program. Different groupings in the parliament coalesced with some agreeing to vote on major issues as blocs. And the three leading blocs—liberal, populist, and Islamic—drew up a list of twelve laws that they agreed to pass. They are also working toward joint action against certain ministers and government officials identified with corruption or with government intervention in the recent parliamentary elections.

"As Kuwaiti politics change, actors in the heretofore self-absorbed system are looking outwards for models. Members of the opposition, even Islamists, speak quietly but definitely about moving toward a constitutional monarchy on a European model. All blocs are trying to anticipate how the new electoral law will work, but most anticipate that Kuwait is moving toward a pluralist political party system of a kind rarely seen in the region.

"The ruling family, by contrast, shows signs of casting envious eyes elsewhere in the Arabian Peninsula, where rulers face less obstreperous (and sometimes unelected) assemblies. This has raised fears of what Kuwaitis refer to as an 'unconstitutional dissolution' of parliament, a step that the previous emir took on two occasions (from 1976 to 1981 and 1986 to 1992). The ruling family has alternately encouraged and discouraged such speculation, although it is unclear whether it is seriously considering such a step or merely trying to frighten the opposition.

"There are ways to avoid a full-scale confrontation between the ruling family and the parliament. A cabinet reshuffle bringing in some reformers might be one conciliatory step. And a confrontation might also be staved off if opposition unity begins to fray, which has already happened on some votes. Suspicions between the Islamists and the other two leading blocs are still extremely strong. Islamists see populists and liberals as lacking in popular support and uncommitted to democracy in cases where it enhances Islamist influences. And liberals and populists believe Islamists view democracy as a means and not an end; they also suspect that Islamists would sell out their allies, especially if given an opportunity to impose their deeply conservative social agenda."

I'm intrigued by Islamist concerns that secular liberals aren't truly committed to democracy. This ties into what I often say about Arab governments using social reform to stave off demands for political reform, most notably in North Africa. However, the situation in Kuwait still looks hopeful.

(Crossposted to American Footprints.)


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