Persian Gulf States Table of Contents

One of the most remarkable aspects of Kuwaiti politics in the postindependence period is the National Assembly--one of the few elected legislative bodies in the region. Preinvasion Kuwait was one of the most politically open states in the region and the most open in the gulf. It had a relatively free press and an assembly elected by a small electorate of adult male citizens. The authors of the postindependence constitution of 1962, aware of the precedent set in the 1938 Legislative Assembly, saw the creation of an elected legislative body as an important means to widen the popular consensus and thereby further legitimize the rule of the Al Sabah, especially at a time when the family's position was threatened by the Iraqi claim to the entire territory of the new state. After the January 1963 election of the first National Assembly, the body evolved to serve as a broad forum for discussion and dissent. The men who dominated this assembly, however, were not the historical elite but, with some exceptions, were Kuwaitis who benefited from the state's generous welfare system. The historical opposition, the merchants on whom the amir relied for money in the lean pre-oil years, refrained from politics, devoting themselves instead to investing the money the amir sent their way.

Although the constitution affords the assembly considerable power, the body is limited by two major restrictions: the small size of the electorate as defined by law, which restricts suffrage to most adult male nationals whose ancestors were present in Kuwait in 1920; and the power of the amir to dissolve the assembly virtually at will. Nonetheless, the assembly plays a prominent role in raising issues of public importance, reviewing and challenging government policies and programs, and responding to constituent concerns. It helps give Kuwait a much more open and public political life than that in other gulf states.

The roots of the National Assembly began in the 1961 elections for the Constituent Assembly, which drafted a constitution and laid the groundwork for elections in 1963 to the first National Assembly. The 1963 elections produced a solid opposition in the National Bloc, which challenged government policy in a number of areas. The opposition was so volatile that when elections were next held in 1967, opponents charged the government with widespread election fraud in an effort to restrict the contentious body. The new assembly indeed proved more pliable. However, the 1971 elections returned a more confrontational assembly, one that devoted much of its energies to the nationalization of the oil company. Elections for the fourth assembly took place in 1975 and produced a body more strongly opposed to the government than its predecessor. In August 1976, Sabah as Salim dissolved the assembly and introduced new restrictions on public assembly and speech. But in 1980, because of renewed concern for popular support in light of the Iranian Revolution of 1979 and the regional tension that accompanied the subsequent Iran-Iraq War, the new amir, Shaykh Jabir al Ahmad, allowed elections to be held. The fifth assembly was highly confrontational, as was the sixth, elected in 1985. When in 1986 the assembly began attacking members of the ruling family, primarily in connection with the handling of the 1982 Suq al Manakh stock market crash, the amir again suspended the assembly. The minister of justice, a member of the ruling family, was forced to resign because of allegations he had used public influence for personal gain in resolving the crash. As in 1976, external pressures from Saudi Arabia, which was highly critical of Kuwait's more participatory system, probably played a role in the amir's decision.

Opposition to the decision again to suspend the assembly manifested itself in the Constitutional Movement of 1989-90. In 1989 members of the dissolved assembly began organizing and calling for reinstitution of the assembly and articles of the 1962 constitution that the amir had suspended as well in 1986. They were joined by many merchants, previously politically quiescent--but now alienated by the ruler's inability to provide the level of economic support they had come to expect owing to the fall in oil prices--and by such others as professionals, liberals, and Islamists. The movement quickly spread through the diwaniyat (sing., diwaniyah), private weekly social meetings in the homes of prominent families, until it became a series of popular antigovernment demonstrations. As the movement developed, the amir and the crown prince responded with both carrots and sticks. In an effort to divide the opposition, the government announced in 1990 that although it would not restore the National Assembly it would establish a National Council comprising fifty elected members and twenty-five appointed members. The new body would thus be less representative than the old assembly. It would also have less power: for example, it could not enact legislation directly. The opposition opposed such an extra-constitutional council, viewing it not only as an effort to preclude a genuinely representative assembly but also as a way for the government to prepare loyalist candidates in the event that genuine assembly elections were held. (Indeed, when National Assembly elections were eventually scheduled in the postinvasion period, a large number of National Council members announced they would run.) Although opposition leaders and others boycotted the elections, the new body was nonetheless constituted following elections for the nonappointed seats in June 1990. This new body had just begun meeting when the Iraqi invasion rendered it obsolete. The National Council met again on several occasions after the end of the Persian Gulf War in 1991 but was eliminated when the National Assembly was reconstituted by elections in October 1992.

Elections for the National Assembly were held on October 5, 1992, by amiri decree, in accordance with the 1962 constitution. Seven political groups (parties remained banned) backed candidates in the campaign. The groups included the Islamic Constitutional Movement, the Islamic Parliamentarian Alliance, the Islamic National Alliance (a Shia group), and the Democratic Forum (progressive former Arab nationalists). The election proceeded without major incident. Opposition and independent candidates, including many associated with the prodemocracy movement, won the majority, thirty to thirty-five of the assembly's fifty seats. Progovernment candidates won the remaining fifteen to twenty seats, primarily in tribal constituencies. Islamist candidates won nineteen seats, a dramatic increase over the nine they had held in the former assembly. Seventeen of the elected members had served in previous assemblies.

Among the issues the members promised to raise in the new assembly were public spending and related financial concerns, foreign policy and the events leading up to the Iraqi invasion, the political status of women (many of whom demonstrated for suffrage during the elections), and Islamic law. Following the elections, Prime Minister and Crown Prince Saad al Abd Allah announced the formation on October 17 of the new cabinet. The cabinet included fewer members of the ruling family than had previous cabinets and six National Assembly opposition members among the sixteen ministers. The new cabinet, however, still left family members holding key posts, including that of minister of foreign affairs, which was returned to the long-serving but unpopular Sabah al Ahmad Al Sabah.

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Source: U.S. Library of Congress