The government headed by Kuwaiti Prime Minister Sheikh Ahmed Nawaf Al-Sabah resigned last week, just three months after it was sworn in.
Crown Prince Sheikh Meshal Al-Ahmad Al-Sabah formally accepted the resignation in a decree that read that “the resignation of His Excellency Prime Minister Sheikh Ahmed Nawaf Al-Sabah and the ministers has been accepted. Each of them shall continue to manage the urgent affairs of his office until such time as a new cabinet is formed.”
The resignation followed a standoff between the government and the Kuwaiti parliament following a loan-relief bill in exchange for a government commitment to a package of financial relief measures for the people.
The outgoing government was the third formed by Sheikh Ahmed Nawaf, the son of the Kuwaiti emir, who had been appointed prime minister in August. It is the sixth time a government has resigned in three years, once because of the protocol required after a parliamentary term ended and five times against the backdrop of political disputes.
There are two immediate reasons for last week’s resignation. The first is the controversial loan-relief bill that would oblige the government to assume payment of about 1.7 billion dinars worth of commercial bank loans owed by around 500,000 Kuwaiti citizens, according to figures supplied by the Kuwaiti Central Bank.
The bill was intended to fulfil a pledge that a majority of MPs had made to their constituents in the lead up to the parliamentary elections in September.
The second reason relates to the parliament’s right to question government officials. One official was the minister of state for cabinet affairs, whom an MP wanted to question in relation to salary raises for ministers and exceptional salary payments to retired government officials.
Another set of questions was directed to the minister of finance and the minister of state for economic affairs and investment in connection with the alleged mismanagement of public funds, such as the Future Generations Fund and the national reserves.
But the tensions between the government and parliament in Kuwait have deeper roots. They stem in part from poor coordination between ministers, the non-implementation of the national development plan, and the poor performance and lack of transparency with regard to policy priorities.
As a whole, the governments did not rest on a comfortable parliamentary majority.
Other sources of tension have had to do with the parliament. One is the haste and frequency of MPs’ requests to question government officials instead of availing themselves of other oversight mechanisms.
MPs also tend not to give ministers sufficient time to perform their duties and tasks. Moreover, the cooperation between the parliament and the government is poor. The result is a cyclical process whereby mounting tensions between the two branches affect sociopolitical and economic stability.
The Kuwaiti parliament is one of the country’s main governmental institutions and plays a vital role in promoting and sustaining democracy. Lawmakers and the drafters of Kuwait’s modern constitution were and remain keen to ensure that this body reflects the will of the people.
The parliament is formally and substantively empowered to promulgate laws. Constitutional Articles 25 and 79 affirm that no law may be promulgated unless it has been passed by parliament and ratified by the emir, making lawmaking a multi-faceted process that is the joint function of parliament and the head of state.
The parliament is composed of 50 members elected directly by secret ballot. Ministers who are not elected members of parliament are considered as such by virtue of their office. The term of the parliament is four calendar years.
The Kuwaiti system of government thus approximates to a parliamentary one, and Article 50 of the Constitution enshrines the principle of the separation of powers. In practice, however, the system tends to give greater weight to the executive, and the emir is both the head of the executive branch and is endowed with lawmaking powers.
In a parliamentary system, one of the most powerful instruments a parliament has is the right to withdraw confidence from the prime minister, thereby bringing down the government.
However, the Kuwaiti parliamentary system does not work this way. Under Article 102 of the Constitution, if the parliament decides that it cannot work with a prime minister, it submits this grievance to the head of state who determines whether to dismiss the prime minister and appoint a new cabinet or to dissolve the parliament.
In the event of the latter, if the new parliament determines by majority vote that it cannot cooperate with the prime minister, the prime minister will be relieved of his office and a new cabinet will be formed.
These provisions are connected with the right to question and to withdraw confidence from ministers apart from the prime minister. According to Articles 100 and 101, MPs may address questions to any minister on matters that fall within that minister’s area of competence.
They may lead to a vote of no confidence in that minister in accordance with certain provisions. In the case where the emir dissolves a parliament that is unable to cooperate with a prime minister and the subsequent parliament deems that it too is unable to work with him, the rules and procedures will then apply.
In the event that confidence is withdrawn, in accordance with the stipulated majority, the government will be deemed dismissed but will carry on in a caretaker capacity.
The current interval until 8 March is therefore critical. While negotiations are underway to form a new government, parliamentary leaders and members of the government can explore possible solutions to their differences.
However, on 8 March, the Constitutional Court is expected to hand down its ruling on appeals lodged against the last legislative elections that took place in September 2022. The results of three out of the five electoral districts have been challenged.
If the court rules in favour of the appeals, the current parliament will be dismissed. If it affirms the integrity of the elections, the prime minister will submit a new slate of ministers to parliament. If a standoff continues, the emir may be forced to either dissolve parliament or to appoint a new prime minister to form a new government for the seventh time.
* A version of this article appears in print in the 2 February, 2023 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly