Economy trumps freedoms as Emir launches new government and 'freezes' Parliament

The 83-year-old Meshal al-Ahmad al-Jaber al-Sabah has given the green light to the new executive. He suspended the assembly (only two precedents in 1976 and 1986) and parts of the Constitution. Behind the decision is the clash between the leadership and the 'pro-Islamist' opposition. Analysts and activists fear an authoritarian drift, priority to the issues of 'national development and stability'. 

Kuwait City (AsiaNews) - The green light given by the 83-year-old Emir Meshal al-Ahmad al-Jaber al-Sabah to the birth of the new government, two days after the dissolution of the parliament elected only a few weeks earlier, seems to have averted an escalation of the political and institutional crisis in Kuwait for the time being.

The executive led by Prime Minister Sheikh Ahmed al-Abdullah al-Sabah will assume some powers hitherto the prerogative of the assembly, but the waters remain choppy, the power struggle between ministers and deputies unresolved, and could resurface forcefully in the near future.

In the last five years, Parliament - last elected in April - has been dissolved on four occasions, but while recourse to early voting is a frequent phenomenon, 'suspension' is a rare occurrence and has only happened on two occasions: in 1976 and 1986.

In making the announcement, Emir Meshal - who came to power last December following the death of his predecessor Nawaf Al-Ahmad Al Jaber - attacked, though without naming them, some officials who were allegedly blocking attempts to appoint the crown prince, a post that is still vacant.

The new government - the 46th in the Gulf country's history since 1962 - is led by Ahmed, the emir's nephew, and consists of 13 ministers, nine of whom have retained their posts from the previous one, including Oil, Finance and Foreign Affairs, which are considered key departments. There are two women. 

A number of articles of the Constitution are also suspended in order to be able to keep the 'democratic process' [primarily the vote for the new assembly] potentially stalled until 2028, in the only Gulf nation that has a parliament chosen by the citizens through a vote.

The move perhaps was intended to put an end to years of political stalemates and reversals, with a clear rift between leadership and opposition (close to the radical Islamic faction).

Among the seven articles of the Constitution suspended is the one according to which the new Parliament must be elected within two months of the dissolution of the previous one and another according to which laws must be approved by both the assembly and the emir.

From this moment on, the highest office of the State has assumed full powers and control of legislation, as he emphasised in the aftermath of the decision: "The recent unrest in the Kuwaiti political scene has reached such a stage that we cannot remain silent, but must take all necessary measures for the best interests of the country and the people," the emir stressed. "I will not allow," he added, "in any way democracy to be exploited to destroy the state.

Outgoing Prime Minister Sheikh Mohammad Sabah al-Salem al-Sabah had refused to continue in office following tensions between the government and the 50-member elected National Assembly.

The Islamist-dominated opposition won again in the last elections in early April, maintaining its control over the parliament, which has been in a constant tug-of-war with the government and the ruling family for years.

The constant bickering between MPs and the executive led to a persistent stalemate in the oil-rich Gulf state, delaying much-needed reforms. Under normal conditions, the assembly can pass a vote of no confidence in any minister or prime minister with a simple majority and also plays a role in the emir's choice of crown prince, another element of discord. 

MPs have recently accused the government of corruption, while the latter has responded by saying that MPs are blocking economic diversification plans. Interviewed by Middle East Eye (Mme) Sean Yom, an expert on Middle East politics at Temple University, points out that the emir has made clear his intention to 'prioritise issues of national development and stability'.

He, he adds, did not hesitate to resort to the 'drastic move' of dissolving the assembly and freezing the vote 'thus differentiating himself from the two previous rulers'. Experts express concern about a possible repression of dissent and internal opposition: 'This choice,' Yom confirms, 'could damage Kuwait's unique tradition of pluralism and liberalism, which is exceptional not only in the Gulf but in the Arab world in general'.

He finally points out the fact that activists and critical voices are "unusually silent", reflecting the fear of a "harsh repression of public dissent", while part of the country is in favour because it is "tired of the rifts between government and parliament". 

The emirate is governed by a constitutional monarchy, with a parliamentary system that is also the oldest in the Gulf; the first Parliament was elected in 1963, two years after independence from the United Kingdom on 19 June 1961. It enjoys enormous powers including passing and blocking laws, questioning ministers and presenting no-confidence against senior officials.

The Majlis al-Umma consists of 50 members, chosen in elections held every four years; it can also remove the prime minister or other ministers, confirm the appointment of the crown prince and the emir, whose throne is hereditary. Kuwait has a population of about 4.4 million people, most of them foreign workers, who are not granted the right to vote and are unlikely to obtain citizenship.