Candidates contesting a general election in Kuwait this week are calling for sweeping reforms including a new constitution that would turn the oil-rich Gulf state into a full democracy.
Their demands range from the establishment of a Western-style, multi-party system, an elected government and a constitutional monarchy, effectively limiting powers enjoyed by the ruling Al-Sabah family.
“I think that the Kuwaiti constitution is incomplete. It is time to re-write the constitution and various legislation,” independent candidate Yussef al-Badah told an election rally.
The call was echoed by many of the 286 liberal, Islamist and independent hopefuls running in Thursday’s snap elections called after parliament was dissolved for the fourth time in less than six years.
“The constitution was issued in 1962 and since then everything has changed and developed except the constitution itself,” former liberal MP Abdulrahman al-Anjari said.
“The dilemma is that we consider our country a (true) democratic state and it is not, because true democracy allows for an elected government” to run the state, said Anjari who is bidding for re-election.
Kuwait became the first Arab monarchy in the Gulf to issue a constitution and adopt democracy as early as in 1962, a year after independence when the ruling family agreed to a power-sharing formula unprecedented in the region.
However, that formula is now seen as incapable of resolving a political deadlock that has intensified in the past few years and led to youth protests encouraged by the Arab Spring to demand comprehensive reforms.
“Reforming the Kuwaiti political system is inevitable… but it has to be made in coordination and the participation of the ruling family,” said Dahem al-Qahtani, a political analyst and blogger.
“I think the ruling family is not prepared for constitutional amendments or giving more powers to the people now… because it thinks that the current constitution is enough,” Qahtani told AFP.
Often described as a half democracy, Kuwait’s political system is between parliamentary and presidential systems with extensive powers concentrated in the hands of the ruler and the cabinet dominated by his family.
The fully elected parliament enjoys legislative and monitoring powers including grilling the premier and ministers and voting them out of office on an individual basis but not the entire cabinet.
But unelected cabinet ministers, about one-third of the house, become members of parliament and enjoy almost the same powers as elected MPs, thus effectively rendering the national assembly as a partially elected chamber.
“The Kuwaiti constitution is a bottom-line charter… No constitution allows appointed cabinet members to vote like elected MPs,” former Islamist MP Jamaan al-Harbash told an election rally.
Calls for amending the constitution have gained momentum in the past few years during which the oil-rich emirate witnessed unprecedented political turmoil, leading to the resignation of seven cabinets in just over five years.
Former prime minister Sheikh Nasser Mohammad al-Ahmad Al-Sabah, a nephew of the ruler, was replaced with Sheikh Jaber Mubarak Al-Sabah, another senior member of the ruling family, a step unprecedented in Kuwait.
Youth and political groups have raised the ceiling of reform demands by urging the establishment of a full constitutional monarchy where members of the Al-Sabah will continue to hold only the posts of the emir and crown prince.
In addition to the two posts of the emir and crown prince, members of the ruling family currently control the premiership post, the so-called sovereign ministries of defence, interior and foreign affairs and a number of other senior positions.
Qahtani warned that failure to respond to youth demands “may force them to search for other means to achieve their goals and this could lead to chaos.”