x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 27 July 2017

Anger at court ruling that dissolved Kuwait parliament

Opposition figure says Kuwait reformists 'should have started planning months ago' their reaction to court decision that upheld changes to the electoral law made by the Emir. Elizabeth Dickinson reports

KUWAIT CITY // Mohammed Al Jasen spent much of yesterday angry and sought refuge in his books.

A prominent lawyer and opposition figure, Mr Al Jasen was disappointed by a Constitutional Court ruling on Sunday that dissolved parliament and upheld controversial changes to the electoral law made by the Emir last October.

But Mr Jasen, jailed three times for his outspoken critique of Kuwait's ruler, was equally frustrated with opposition leaders.

They have spent the past half year campaigning against the new rules that restricted voters to one ballot instead of four, arguing the change would limit the ability to form political coalitions.

A broad range of youth, tribalists, Sunni Islamists, and liberals boycotted last December's election to protest against the new system. Their rallies drew tens of thousands to the streets.

But after the court ruling, Mr Al Jasen said, the opposition did not know what to do.

"They have no plans," he said, throwing up his arms in frustration from the basement office. "They are complaining that this court ruling was a surprise. But they should have started planning two months ago how to react."

Many in Kuwait thought the constitutional court's ruling would end the political crisis. Instead, it has compounded a political problem that has paralysed the country for months.

Sunday's court ruling settled a year-long tussle over the election laws that began when parliament was dissolved by the court in June 2012, citing a flaw in the electoral process. Arguing that he was fixing the system, the Emir issued an emergency decree in October to amend the electoral law, and fresh elections were held in December.

But the opposition boycotted the poll and claimed that the decree, which reduced the number of candidates each voter could select from four to one, was a breach of the Emir's executive authority. They said that the new rules unfairly prevented electoral coalitions and were made in an underhand manner - by emergency decree while the parliament was out of session.

The ruling on Sunday upheld the changes to the electoral system. But it also ruled that a second emergency decree from the Emir, creating a national election commission, was illegal.The court dissolved the parliament, since it had been elected under the now-illegal commission in December, and fresh elections are expected within 60 days.

Although Emir Sheikh Sabah Al Ahmad Al Jaber Al Sabah promised to abide by the court's decision, Kuwaitis across the political spectrum can find something to like - and something to dislike - in the lengthy ruling.

Opposition groups are pleased that the parliament was dissolved. Having boycotted in December, they did not hold a single seat in that assembly, which has the power to introduce legislation and question government ministers.

Just one day after the ruling, however, splits were already emerging over whether to contest the new elections, which the Constitution stipulates must be held within 60 days. An emergency opposition meeting of the major Islamist and tribal groups on Sunday suggested boycotting once again. But the politicians also created a committee that will meet to draft a list of options for how to react.

The liberal National Action Bloc, once a member of the opposition coalition, said it accepted the court's ruling and would take part in future elections.

Meanwhile, youth groups who had helped organise opposition rallies throughout the past year remained quiet, uncertain about future protests.

"The opposition is now in limbo, because they boycotted the last election [in protest] of the amended election law," said Abdullah Shayji, head of the political science department at Kuwait University, adding that he expected political alliances to splinter.

Meanwhile, members of the more pro-government parliament that was dissolved by Sunday's ruling argue that the ruling set a dangerous new precedent.

"There is a new culture to cancel the parliament through the court, and this is something strange and unacceptable to the population," said Abdul Hameed A Dashti, an MP in the annulled parliament. "This is a bad game played by the government."

Mr Dashti planned to ask fellow MPs at an emergency meeting late yesterday to back a series of demands to address those concerns.

He said he would ask the government to punish individuals - including the prime minister - who were involved in the crafting of the laws the court found unconstitutional. He will also ask that the government compensate MPs for the amount they spent on campaigning, since the parliament was annulled.

Yet Dr Shayji said that politicians may, in the end, put their concerns aside when fresh elections approach, if for no other reason than to bring a bit of calm to Kuwaiti politics. The country has had six different parliaments in the last seven years. Voters, protesters and investors are getting tired.

"It seems that there is a strong move toward participation," said Dr Shayji.

But for now, he said, "there is more fragmentation than unity on how to deal with the consequences of the ruling".

edickinson@thenational.ae

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