One Step Forward in Kuwait

November 04, 1992

It was disillusioning to many Americans to realize that American troops invaded Kuwait last year to restore its government, not to restore a democracy it never had.

Kuwait is a monarchy ruled by the emir, Sheik Jaber al-Ahmad al-Sabah, with his kin in most of the governmental and business posts that count. Kuwait is also something of a family business. Operation Desert Storm was mounted to save Kuwait from absorption by Iraq, not to reform it. Once the Sabah clan returned, the burgeoning of Kuwaiti patriotism was squelched. The emir appeared to have learned nothing.

So it is cheerful news that in Kuwait's first parliamentary elections in six years, opposition candidates won a parliamentary majority, 35 of 50 seats.

The really cheerful part is that the election was held. The emir did learn something after all.

Who won is of somewhat less moment. The victorious opposition consists of both secular and Islamic figures in Kuwait running as independents, the latter divided between Sunnites and Shiites. It is not a monolith. Some stalwart supporters of the emir lost.

Parliament does not rule Kuwait. The emir does. The 1962 constitution under which this election was held gives parliament the right to question officials, review expenditures and veto legislation, not name the cabinet. The election was limited to men over the age of 21 who can prove that their families lived in Kuwait before 1921. This may not sound like much. It is more democratic than most Arab countries.

The emir has made a good new start by allowing this parliament to convene, under the speaker who held that role in 1986 when the emir suspended parliament for too much criticism of his regime. He can revive the faith of those who supported him in bad times by accepting the mandate for open government and by taking opposition figures into his cabinet.

The result would not be democracy. It would be a more open, accountable and publicly supported Kuwaiti regime. The emir ought to want that.

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