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Next Step : Kuwaitis Ready to 'Fire' Lawmakers : Critics complain that the National Assembly is all talk and no action.

June 27, 1995|CRAIG TURNER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

KUWAIT CITY — Legislators snarl with sarcasm. Accusations abound of grandstanding to the voters. High-profile investigative committees uncover mismanagement in the executive branch and embarrass Cabinet members.

Meanwhile, academics and an inquisitive press corps tut about gridlock and how the country's real problems remain unchallenged.

Remind anyone of Washington or Sacramento?

Well, the legislators here wear cool white dishdashas and twist worry beads, and one of their toughest debates centered on a Muslim member's proposal to segregate the high schools by sex.

Moreover, Kuwait, is still new at this, having reanimated its moribund democracy in 1992--the year after its liberation in the Persian Gulf War.

But there is one other thing Americans might recognize.

Kuwait voters show every sign of being fed up with the current state of Parliament, and nearly everyone in this oil-endowed sheikdom seems to expect a wholesale turnover in next year's elections.

"This place sounds like the United States: 'Let's throw all the bums out. They didn't deliver,' " one Western diplomat said.

"It's true, I expect that, after the next election, there will be a lot of new faces here," said Ali Ahmed Baghli, a liberal member of the National Assembly. "Our Parliament came in with great zeal and big objectives, and we've done so little. But, nevertheless, parliamentary life has become indispensable for the Kuwaiti people. . . .We're at the point of no return."

The last point may be the most important of all, for Kuwait's struggle to find a middle ground between the family monarchies that traditionally have governed on the Arabian Peninsula and the Western-style participatory democracy increasingly demanded by the populace is being watched closely throughout the Gulf.

Pro-democracy demonstrators in Bahrain cite Kuwait as a model, and the entrenched monarchy in Saudi Arabia views the Parliament here with barely contained distaste.

Meeting beneath the soaring arches of the National Assembly building opposite Kuwait's old dhow harbor, the 50-member Parliament enacts legislation and adopts an annual budget, but most power still resides with the hereditary emir, Sheik Jabbar al Ahmed al Sabah, and his government, headed by the prime minister, Crown Prince Sheik Saad al Abdullah al Sabah, who is the emir's cousin.

Economic consultant Jasem al Sadoun, a sharp observer of Kuwait's political culture, explained the country's democratic parameters this way:

"We have a Parliament that can talk about throwing out the crown prince and prime minister. Of course, they can't actually do it, but at least they can talk about it."

Talk, in fact, has proven to be the Parliament's most potent weapon so far.

But it is also the greatest liability, according to analysts and officials.

While Parliament has adopted laws restricting smoking in public places, banning cigarette advertising and invoking the death penalty for drug smuggling, its most potent act has been a high-profile inquiry uncovering millions of dollars of waste and potential graft in Kuwait's arms-acquisition program during the years leading up to the 1990 Iraqi invasion.

The investigation produced what is viewed as a healthy debate in a country embarked on a $12-billion, 12-year defense buildup.

But parliamentary bombast, and its members' failure to always back the talk with action, has also produced public disillusionment with the legislature.

Kuwait's two most difficult issues--how to deal with its budget deficit and the unresolved future of the estimated 130,000 stateless Arabs who live within its borders--remain virtually untouched, judged too hot to handle.

Saif Abbas Abdullah, chairman of the political science department at Kuwait University, said there has been too much high-decibel debate and not enough time to "sit and think quietly and wisely."

"It's like playing a game of soccer with no offsides," he said. "The game goes on and on and never stops. . . .We've been running all over the field all day, and I think we need breathing space. I'd like Parliament to cool off, and the press to take a breather."

Others say expectations of Parliament were far too high in the exhilarating days of 1991, after liberation from seven months of Iraqi occupation, especially given the country's inexperience with democratic processes.

"It's seat-of-the-pants kind of stuff," said one Western diplomat with long experience in the region. "There simply is no deeply embedded wisdom on how to prepare legislative positions."

The emir has twice suspended the 1962 constitution and dissolved the National Assembly, from 1976-81 and from 1986-92. He was pushed into reconvening the body by Kuwaitis who resisted the Iraqi occupation and by subtle pressure from the United States.

Political parties are banned, and voting rights are limited to males over 21 who can prove that their families lived in Kuwait before 1921. That totals about 13% of the population of 1.8 million.

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