Last year, Kuwait’s current emir (or ruler) Sheikh Sabah al-Ahmad Al-Sabah accepted the resignation of the former government and dissolved the National Assembly. Widespread protests demanded reforms and the resignation of Prime Minister Sheikh Nasser Mohammad al-Ahmad al-Sabah (the emir’s nephew) over a corruption scandal.
After the resignation of Sheikh Nasser, the emir exercised his constitutional power to appoint Sheikh Jaber Mubarak al-Sabah as a government caretaker and decided to leave the previous cabinet intact until a new government was elected.
In Kuwait, the emir is considered as the head of state; his powers are briefly outlined in the country’s constitution. Although the country’s National Assembly is elected, the emir has the power to appoint the Prime Minister, deputy ministers and military officials, dissolve parliament, and sanction laws. Further, his powers as ruler are considered “immune and inviolable.”
In February, Kuwaiti citizens participated in an election to choose members of their unicameral National Assembly. The majority of the seats (34 out of the 50) were secured by the Islamist opposition.
Last week, Kuwait’s Constitutional Court nullified those election results because it found that the dissolution of the National Assembly by the emir, and the resulting new election, were unconstitutional.
Further, the court also declared that the membership of all current Members will be cancelled and the previous legislature will be restored. A Toronto Star article notes that the court’s decision came after the government prorogued the parliament for a month due to “escalating feud with Islamist-led opposition lawmakers seeking a greater voice in the Gulf nation’s affairs.”
Leading opposition Member Musallam Al- Barrak called the court’s decision “a coup against the constitution” and a “blatant attack on the choice of the people.” Further, he urged opposition members to take a united stance against the verdict. However, the court decided to reinstate the former parliament because it appeared to be more “liberal and supportive of the government.”
In response to the court’s verdict, 400 demonstrators protested outside the parliament and a group of counter-protestors showed their support for the decision and the ruler. This recent constitutional crisis has further escalated political instability in Kuwait and has raised an important question over the legitimacy of democracy in the country.
Canada has faced several parliamentary crises in its history. Most notably, the Governor General of Canada, Lord Byng of Vimy, refused Prime Minister William Lyon Mackenzie King’s 1926 request to dissolve the dysfunctional minority parliament and call a general election. As the Queen’s representative in Canada, Byng’s decision was final. Negative reactions to the “King-Byng affair” led to the 1931 Statute of Westminster which established legislative independence for Canada, effectively making the Governor General a figurehead.
In December 2008, Prime Minister Stephen Harper asked Governor General Michaëlle Jean for a prorogation of parliament, a temporary recess from the current parliamentary session. The Liberals and NDP, supported by the Bloc Quebecois, had formed an agreement to co-govern and had threatened to defeat Harper’s minority government in a non-confidence motion. Instead of an election, the two parties were hoping to form the next government.
Jean did grant Harper’s request, but only after extensive consultation with various constitutional experts. As a result, the non-confidence motion could not be held, and Harper remained Prime Minister. Had Jean refused – something she would be entitled to do, as the Governor General – a similar controversy to the King-Byng affair may have erupted.
Canada has taken action to prevent its Head of State (the Queen, through the Governor General) from influencing the overall democratic affairs of the country. What steps should Kuwait take to protect its democracy?
Instead of reinstating the former legislature, ousted due to controversies and scandals, the Constitutional Court should have followed the democratic path by suspending the incumbent parliament and by announcing another round of elections. By doing so, it would have maintained the voters’ trust and avoided further political instability.
The people of Kuwait will have to wait and see what steps – if any – will be taken to restore constitutional order and democratic values in their country.
Abhi (CIVIX Intern)
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