Group calls for elected Cabinet, electoral reform as keys to end political stalemate

KUWAIT: The Kuwait Democratic Forum (KDF) is a leftist political organization established on March 1, 1991. It is separate from the National Democratic Alliance, which serves as an umbrella group for secular political movements in Kuwait. KDF exited this umbrella in 2008, when it became its own political organization with its own agenda and goals. KDF last ran candidates in the February 2012 parliamentary polls, and chose not to participate in the three elections that followed.
In a sit-down conversation, Ali Hussain Al-Awadhi, Secretary General of the KDF, and Abdulgafoor Hajjieh, Director of Communications, spoke about the forum’s view of the current political situation and their proposed solutions for the political stalemate, among other topics. The following are excerpts from the interview:

Ali Al-Awadhi speaks to Kuwait Times

Kuwait Times: What is your political program?
Ali Al-Awadhi: It emerges from the general political situation, which is based on struggles between political poles within the authority inside Kuwait, which creates a state of continued political crisis. We are asking for an elected government according to the constitution. Meaning, the Cabinet’s formation should include elected parliament members.
This should be the basis for the Cabinet’s formation – to include the largest number of MPs possible in order for it to be closer to the popular or parliamentary form of government. What is happening, however, is the complete opposite. Usually one MP is selected to comply with constitutional norms. This is a key obstacle.
Secondly, we ask for amending the one-man-one-vote system. This is one of our key demands. Thirdly, restoring the parliament’s real legislative and monitoring role. This is absent today in the parliament, which is more government-friendly, or in some cases, includes members loyal to some political poles in the authority and government. This was even noticed in the most recent grillings too.
Our vision also has an economic aspect. The forum rejects liquidation of the public sector, or privatization of public services. In addition, we call for creating alternative sources of income. Oil is a non-renewable resource, so we demand finding other sources of income that can include oil-based industries. These are the two main aspects that characterize the forum’s stance, in addition to other topics such as education, health, etc.

KT: What kind of change in the election system are you looking for?
Awadhi: We want the list system, where 10 candidates are included in a list and citizens can vote for up to 10 candidates on the list. Each electoral district should have two representatives – the ticket has to have two candidates, so each electoral district should have a ticket that elects the same number of people. Kuwait has five voting districts, so each district elects 10 deputies. Each citizen should be able to choose 10 people, and that grouping should be allowed to formulate a list of 10 deputies and people can vote for the list.

Abdulgafoor Hajjieh speaks to Kuwait Times

Public sector’s privatization
KT: You mentioned that the forum rejects privatization of the public sector. Can you elaborate?
Abdulgafoor Hajjieh: We do not reject all forms of privatization. What we reject is the government’s attempt to liquidate the public sector. For example, the government is talking about privatizing the Ministry of Electricity and Water. This is a public interest.

KT: The government’s argument is that privatization helps make services more efficient.
Hajjieh: This is an issue of mismanagement, not an issue of inefficiency. If there was good management and good governance, there would be no need to privatize. We have a good example in Europe, where most of the public services are provided by the government. How come it works there and it doesn’t work here? So the argument that privatizing the public sector to achieve efficiency is debunked.
KT: But in that case, in Europe they have taxes which pay for public services. Does that mean that KDF supports the concept of taxes in Kuwait? Like income taxes, for instance?
Awadhi: We reject taxes in general, unless they come in the form of corporate income tax. If it should be imposed, it should start with corporations, and should be progressive tax based on income (income brackets). Meanwhile, we completely reject value added tax (VAT), because it would affect regular citizens.
Hajjieh: Also, since the government withholds natural resources and manages oil itself, this is equivalent to taxation. How come you want to tax people’s incomes, when you’re providing their income? There is no need for that.

KT: In this case, what you have is a government saying that we have to make plans and start working now for a time when we cannot rely on oil revenues. We have to privatize and grow the private economy.
Hajjieh: Privatization is not the solution. It would create a situation where citizens who already take money from the government would be giving money back to the government, so it won’t change anything. We call for an export-based economy, more than one that depends on privatization.
Privatization is not a substitute for an export-based economy. Instead of privatizing the public sector and imposing taxes, policymakers should plan for introducing exportable goods, including foodstuff, intellectual property and oil-based manufactured goods which we can make in Kuwait. What the government has been doing since the discovery of oil in the 1930s is that they have not even tried to create a manufacturing base for oil. So instead of becoming an export-based economy, we became a rentier economy. So how come privatizing the public sector is a solution for that?

KT: But the point is that oil itself is finite, so the government is saying let us explore other sources of income.
Hajjieh: It’s true, but it’s finite in Kuwait. If you have a manufacturing base in Kuwait, you can eventually import oil from other countries and manufacture it here, so you can jumpstart your oil manufacturing now where you can eventually import oil from other countries to produce it in Kuwait.

KT: But if we’re talking about Kuwait as a manufacturing base, how can Kuwait compete with countries like China or India in terms of manufacturing labor?
Hajjieh: From an economic standpoint, these countries are becoming uncompetitive as their income brackets start to increase. Not to the level of Kuwait – at least for now, but if you take a look at China, their manufacturing base is decreasing because the economy is growing enough to grow the middle class.
Furthermore, we are not talking about small products, but things that require more technical knowledge to produce, which do not require cheap labor. In the long run, there won’t be cheap labor because most of their work will become automated. So if the government’s argument is that we should not start manufacturing here because of the lack of cheap labor, cheap labor will likely be eliminated in the next 10 years. We want something to be more technical, so our people that have oil and minds can produce those things. We want a greater manufacturing base on the high end, because this is what will work in the long run.

Government’s structure
KT: You mentioned the structure of the government as one of the main topics that your platform addresses. Can you elaborate?
Awadhi: The biggest problem in the government’s structure is that it is based on the political quota system, divided between a group of poles within the [ruling] family (patronage system). Each pole has his own team of ministers and loyal members of parliament. That’s one problem.
Two, ‘buying’ loyalties in parliament on tribal and sectarian bases to maintain the continuation of the government. However, this system is too frail to withstand political crises, which often leads the Cabinet to break apart very easily.
Therefore, the best solution for the government’s structure is to have a prime minister with a real program for change and political reform. Without this way of thinking, we cannot have a Cabinet capable of reforming government management in Kuwait. This is the problem that hinders all attempts at achieving development. Even with regards to the New Kuwait 2035 vision, till now the government is incapable of comprehending or implementing the ideas mentioned by His Highness the Amir. In short, the Cabinet’s problem is that it lacks a real program by which it can operate.

KT: Are you calling for an elected Cabinet with an elected prime minister?
Awadhi: Yes. Otherwise, the prime minister can be from the ruling family, but the remaining ministers should be from elected parliament members. For example, in the UK, the party that wins elections forms the government. This is an advanced phase of parliamentary work. In Kuwait, we need to improve parliamentary work to reach that stage. We might not reach there in one or two years, but with improving the election system and recognizing political parties, we can reach the elected Cabinet state. The Kuwaiti constitution does not oppose the presence of an elected Cabinet. In fact, it stipulates that the Cabinet’s formation should include elected parliament members, and to open the door for MPs to enter the Cabinet, which is completely the opposite of what’s happening today. This prevents the Cabinet from having popular strength.
Hajjieh: We call for incremental improvement of the political structure of Kuwait, reaching an elected Cabinet. We do not necessarily call for an elected Cabinet right now, but we want an incremental approach to the political structure to reach the maturity that can make implementing an elected government possible.

KT: What are the steps to achieve that?
Awadhi: First, the Cabinet should comprise of parliament members. Second, there should be a clear law to legalize, recognize and organize political parties. Third, amending the election law and adopt the list system. These are the steps we believe are important to reach an elected prime minister status.
KT: Can you give us a timeline for this?
Awadhi: Ten to 15 years for this to be implemented, especially since the social culture depends on social and personal relationships that dominate political work. This period would help change the culture from being more socially oriented to becoming more politically oriented.
KT: What issue do you anticipate will precipitate the dissolution of parliament? Grillings?
Hajjieh: Actually, yes. Historically speaking, the last term of parliament has always been turbulent and featured a lot of grillings, and let’s say, perceived political instability, because this is where populist rhetoric becomes more prevalent. You see people talking about writing off loans, grilling the prime minister, the housing issue, etc.

KT: This parliament has already served three years, and it is in its last term. So it is remarkably stable compared to previous parliaments.
Hajjieh: Yes, but can this stability be maintained? This is the issue. Because everyone is talking about a change in government.

KT: In that case, where do you stand from the upcoming elections?
Awadhi: Our official stance since 2012 is not to participate in parliamentary elections or the Cabinet’s formation. Until now, we are maintaining the same stance, unless something new emerges or positive change happens that make us participate in elections.

KT: What would be an example of that positive change?
Awadhi: Electoral reform. Reform of the election system should come from parliament, not the government. If parliament issues a law that changes the electoral system, including the constituencies, voting system, etc, then is might make us participates in elections. But as long as the electoral system stays the same, then we maintain our stance of not participating.

KT: What other kind of voting system changes are you looking for?
Hajjieh: The change must come from parliament – any change as long as it comes from the National Assembly.

KT: But if the parliament is dissolved to have elections within two months, that does not leave enough time to change the electoral system in parliament.
Hajjieh: When we said earlier that elections could be held within two months, those are just speculations – it might happen or not. But for us to participate, change has to come from parliament. Even if it was an unfavorable change for us, as long as it comes from parliament, we are OK with it. If this does not happen, then we will maintain our position of not participating.

KT: Then why the effort now to publicize your political platform?
Awadhi: To send a specific message that we are present as a political organization, and this is our program through which we attempt to educate the public regarding many of the current issues and where we stand from them, in an attempt to achieve change from outside the parliament or government – one that happens through public pressure that could force this change through peaceful means.

Bedoons’ issue
KT: What is your stance on the bedoons issue?
Awadhi: We support a just solution for this case, according to official data in the government’s possession. The Central Agency for Illegal Residents’ Affairs possesses full information, and according to official statements, there are categories among bedoons who are deserving of obtaining Kuwaiti citizenship. The first step should start with granting citizenship to those under these categories as a first stage to solve this problem.
In the meantime, basic human rights of education, healthcare, employment, etc should be granted to all bedoons. There are proposals discussed in parliament on this issue, including one submitted by Speaker Marzouq Al-Ghanem. These proposals should be carefully studied until a just and humane solution is reached.

KT: You participated in an anti-corruption rally that took place recently in Irada Square, and you mentioned that as a key aspect of your platform. Do you want to speak on that?
Awadhi: What happened at Irada Square is this: There is a case of public frustration on the deterioration of public services and corruption. This public frustration has been ongoing for a while. Meanwhile, former MP Saleh Al-Mulla launched a Twitter campaign, which received a strong response, leading to organizing the sit-in. We at the forum support any serious movement to stop this deterioration in the form of peaceful action.

Interviewed by Jamie Etheridge and Ahmad Jabr