KUWAIT CITY, (AP) – Days before electing their second parliament in a year, Kuwaitis are trading blame about how their tiny, oil-rich country has reached a political stalemate that has virtually frozen development during tough economic times.
The fight boils down to a standoff between the Cabinet, controlled by the ruling family and pushing for economic reform, and lawmakers elected to parliament. Some accuse the lawmakers — a mix of Islamists, tribal and independent legislators — of abusing power to grill Cabinet members and focusing only on expanding the extensive welfare system.
The lawmakers, however, contend they have blocked corruption.
The tensions have resulted in three parliament dissolutions in as many years and five Cabinets, because of the ruling family’s sensitivity toward the public criticism. The political upheaval takes on even greater significance as the country grapples with the global economic meltdown and the slump in oil revenues, which account for 90 percent of government income.
“We are tired of crisis after crisis. Even children are frustrated,” said Adel al-Khalaf, a 45-year-old engineer attending a rally before this Saturday’s vote.
The economic woes in Kuwait_ which owns 10 percent of the world’s oil reserves but gives voting rights only to its 1.08 million citizens, not to the majority 2.35 million foreign workers — are being closely watched by the country’s autocratic neighbors.
After the country’s ruler, the emir, dissolved the legislature in March, Moody’s Investors Service placed the country’s sovereign rating under review for a possible downgrade, citing the political situation. That move came as one major Kuwaiti investment bank struggled with $3 billion in debt defaults and the government pushed measures to inject capital into the economy to boost confidence.
The country still faces a tough economic forecast, with the International Monetary Fund projecting the economy would contract 1.1 percent this year. The Central Bank governor urged fellow citizens to avert the Moody’s downgrade by reaching “national agreement” on the economy.
But for decades, plans to reform Kuwait’s economy have faced resistance in parliament. Imposing income taxes and privatizing subsidized public services are not as popular with voters as measures to forgive unpaid power bills and raise salaries, which parliament enacted.
Kuwaitis complain the quality of state-provided medical care and education has deteriorated. Most of the national work force is employed by the government, while foreign workers from more than 100 countries dominate private business.
Kuwait is already fighting concerns by the international market after the government last year, under parliamentary pressure, scrapped a $17 billion deal with Dow Chemical. Several lawmakers said the deal was too expensive and threatened to grill the prime minister.
The Cabinet also had to cancel a $14 billion project to build a fourth oil refinery after an investigation, prodded by parliament, found the state-owned company did not follow correct procedures in awarding contracts.
A stimulus bill proposed by the Central Bank governor also was unpopular with many lawmakers. It encourages bank loans and gives solvent faltering investment companies a chance to restructure, but critics say it won’t help average Kuwaitis struggling with consumer loans.
The emir eventually approved the stimulus bill by decree, in the absence of parliament, but the new parliament will have the right to vote it down.
Economic analyst Hajjaj Bou Khadour accuses lawmakers of hurting economic development by “concentrating on grillings of ministers and terrorizing them.”
The ruling Al Sabah family has historically been sensitive to the grillings, which often lead to attempts to impeach ministers, especially if the ministers are family members. Parliaments have been dissolved and Cabinets reshuffled to avoid the step. In recent years, lawmakers have banked on that, threatening grillings over minor issues.
But lawmakers stoutly defend the tactic, saying it is their only way to control cabinets appointed by the ruling family.
“Whatever (projects) we stopped in parliament were in violation of laws and attempts to steal public money,” said former speaker and candidate Ahmed al-Sadoun.
The emir, Sheik Sabah Al Ahmed Al Sabah, conceded that Cabinets have not done their best to push projects to “guarantee the future of next generations.” But he said the Cabinets cannot perform in an atmosphere of “tension, abuse of power and intimidation.”
He urged Kuwaitis to “really help” him by choosing legislators who, he said, could cooperate with the executive branch.