Will Kuwaiti emir's pardons for opposition figures break the parliamentary gridlock?

Will Kuwaiti emir's pardons for opposition figures break the parliamentary gridlock?
Kuwaiti Emir Sheikh Nasser's pardons of political opposition figures represent an important trust-building step that may have cracked a paralyzing parliamentary gridlock, writes Courtney Freer.
4 min read
27 Oct, 2021
Emir of Kuwait Nawaf al-Ahmad al-Jaber al-Sabah (C) attends the second session of the 16th legislative term, at the parliament in Kuwait City on 26 October 2021. [Getty]

Last Wednesday, on 20 October, shortly after the one-year anniversary of his first year in power, Kuwaiti Emir Sheikh Nawaf al-Ahmed al-Sabah began the process of issuing pardons to several members of the political opposition who face prison sentences. 

Kuwait's broad-based cross-ideological opposition has agitated for these pardons since 2017 when several former MPs were sentenced for having stormed parliament in 2011 during a protest over alleged graft and mismanagement. 

Gridlock between the executive and legislature reached a peak during the last parliamentary term, leading the cabinet to resign within a month of its appointment, spurring a number of requests for interpellations of ministers from elected MPs and a move to replace the current speaker of parliament, and, most importantly, adding to delay in pushing forward legislation such as a debt law to help Kuwait access global debt markets to shore up its fiscal position – a delay which the IMF recently noted as deleterious to its global financial standing.

"Gridlock between the executive and legislature reached a peak during the last parliamentary term"

An official committee has been formed to address the issue of political pardons after 40 MPs signed an appeal calling on the emir to pardon the political dissidents, including several former MPs who have been living in exile for the past three years to escape prison sentences. The appeal asked that the emir "agree to start the first step of comprehensive national reconciliation by approving to pardon Kuwaitis convicted for expressing a political opinion or stance." It added that a pardon could help contribute to more political stability and cooperation, in short to "to open a new page for a new Kuwait."

In response, Sheikh Nawaf has asked the speaker of parliament, the prime minister, and the head of the supreme judicial council to recommend conditions and terms of amnesty before an official emiri decree is made. It is thus far unclear which figures will receive amnesty, with a statement from the emir’s office stating only at this point that the amnesty will be applied to "some Kuwaitis sentenced in past cases." 

It is likely that this pardon will be unconditional, meaning that the returning political figures could conceivably compete in future parliamentary elections, and, considering that some of these figures have substantial political followings, they could end up taking seats in the legislature and becoming voices of political opposition within the institution once again. A report from the committee investigating the pardons will be released in two weeks containing details of those who will be pardoned and conditions (if any) on their pardons.

Members of the Kuwaiti opposition exiled in Turkey since 2018 (including popular tribal figure Musallam al-Barrak and Islamist Jamaan al-Harbash, but excluding Faisal al-Muslim) issued a statement thanking Sheikh Nawaf for his decision to pardon them and thanking the MPs who participated in the national dialogue that brought the issue of amnesty to the fore.

Indeed, the issue has long been a sticking point between the executive and legislative branches in Kuwait, and a breakthrough indicates a desire on both sides to enhance cooperation ahead of the upcoming parliamentary session.

Since Sheikh Nawaf came to power last September, relations with the parliament elected in December 2020 and containing members of the political opposition – a bloc which has proven powerful yet hardly united – have been difficult, delaying the passage of legislation and spurring parliamentary infighting. 

Advancement towards an emiri pardon, regardless of how extensive it is, represents an important step forward by demonstrating the emir's willingness to concede to a major opposition demand in the interest of advancing broader political stability and progress.

Many Kuwaitis who have become frustrated with the inability of parliament to push forward legislation are in favour of this decision, and it is hoped that the pardon will help to ensure that the new term of parliament is more productive and less oppositional than the previous one, as the inaugural session takes place on Monday the 25th.

Although opposition members will still voice their opinions in parliament, the pardon represents an important step in building up trust between opposition MPs and the emir as well as between the opposition and speaker of parliament Marzouq al-Ghanem whom members of the opposition have long regarded as too loyalist but who is taking an active role in the pardon committee.

If a pardon agreement is reached, the Kuwaiti parliament could then focus on issues of more economic urgency, as the country's fiscal position has suffered, particularly since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Dr Courtney Freer is a research fellow at LSE Middle East Centre.

Follow her on Twitter: @CourtneyFreer

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Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff.