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The Kuwaiti Constitution

Kuwait proudly identifies itself as the region's oldest functioning democracy. Kuwaitis across the spectrum express continuing loyalty to the constitution, which establishes an elected National Assembly and separate executive, legislative, judicial branches. Respect for basic rights of free speech and assembly are ingrained in Kuwaiti society and are generally respected by the Government. Recent years have seen positive developments in Kuwait's democracy. Women won the right to vote and run for public office in 2005. Two women have been appointed as ministers since then and women ran for Parliament in the 2006 elections. A 2006 law has allowed the licensing of new daily newspapers for the first time in decades.

In June 1961, following independence and under the shadow of an Iraqi threat, Amir Abd Allah as Salim announced that he would establish a constitution for Kuwait. In December, elections were held for a Constituent Assembly, which then drafted a constitution promulgated as Law Number 1 on November 11, 1962. Although articles of the constitution have since been suspended twice, the document nonetheless remains the basic statement of intent for the Kuwaiti political system.

The constitution opens with the declaration that Kuwait is "an independent sovereign Arab State," and its people are "a part of the Arab Nation." Islam is "the religion of the state," and the sharia (Islamic law) is "a main source of legislation." The latter phrase has been the source of much debate, with Islamist opposition members pressing to have Islam made "the" source of legislation.

The constitution defines Kuwait as "a hereditary Amirate, the succession to which shall be in the descendants of the late Mubarak Al Sabah." This clause codifies what has become practice: the semiformal alternation of power since 1915 between the lines of Mubarak's two ruling sons: Jabir and Salim.

Although granting the amir substantial power, the constitution also provides for political participation by the citizens. The system of government is defined in Article 6 as "democratic, under which sovereignty resides in the people, the source of all powers." Articles 79 to 122 establish the National Assembly and lay out the rules governing its formation, rights, and duties.

Individual rights protected by the constitution are extensive and include personal liberty and equality before the law, freedom to hold beliefs and express opinions, and freedom of the press. The residences of citizens are inviolable, the torture and the deportation of Kuwaiti citizens are prohibited, and the accused are assumed innocent until proven guilty. Also guaranteed is the freedom to form associations and trade unions. The constitution guarantees the independence of the judiciary and designates the Supreme Council of the Judiciary as its highest body and guarantor of judicial independence.

The constitution also grants citizens a number of social rights, which form the basis for Kuwait's extensive welfare system. The state is constitutionally obligated to care for the young and to aid the old, the ill, and the disabled. It is obliged to provide public education and to attend to public health. The constitution provides for state involvement in the national economy to the degree that these obligations necessitate. However, Articles 16 through 19 protect private property, stating that "private property is inviolable" and reminding citizens that "inheritance is a right governed by the Islamic Sharia." Article 20 stipulates that "the national economy shall be based on social justice. It is founded on fair cooperation between public and private activities. Its aim shall be economic development, increase of productivity, improvement of the standard of living and achievement of prosperity for citizens, all within the limits of the law." Duties of citizens include national defense, observance of public order and respect for public morals, andpayment of taxes. These rights and obligations, however, apply only to Kuwaiti citizens. The remainder of the population have few political and civil rights and enjoy restricted access to the benefits of the state welfare system.

In August 1976, in reaction to heightened assembly opposition to his policies, the amir suspended four articles of the constitution concerned with political and civil rights (freedom of the press and dissolution of the legislature) and the assembly itself. In 1980, however, the suspended articles of the constitution were reinstated along with the National Assembly. In 1982 the government submitted sixteen constitutional amendments that, among other things, would have allowed the amir to declare martial law for an extended period and would have increased both the size of the legislature and the length of terms of office. In May 1983, the proposals were formally dropped after several months of debate. Nonetheless, the issue of constitutional revisions continued as a topic of discussion in both the National Assembly and the palace. In 1986 the constitution was again suspended, along with the National Assembly. As with the previous suspension, popular opposition to this move emerged; indeed, the prodemocracy movement of 1989-90 took its name, the Constitutional Movement, from the demand for a return to constitutional life. This opposition became more pronounced following the Iraqi occupation, which abrogated all constitutional rights, and following Kuwait's return to sovereignty in 1991. In early 1992, many press restrictions were lifted. After the October 1992 election, the National Assembly exercised its constitutional right to review all amiri decrees promulgated while the assembly was in dissolution.

Article 100 of the Kuwaiti Constitution indicates that; "Every member of the National Assembly is permitted to file grilling motions against ministers or His Highness the Prime Minister with regard to issues falling within their jurisdiction." This article means that members of the legislative authority have the right to direct parliamentary questions to the members of the executive authority and the latter are obliged to respond. This is what makes the Kuwaiti Constitution unique and different from the Constitutions of other countries; because if the minister doesn''t respond to the questions or the answers are inadequate, the members of the legislative power can resort to filing a motion of no?confidence. The right of MPs to file grilling motions is the most important feature of the Constitution. The Government sees grillings as a challenge to its authority, especially when the minister to be grilled hails from the ruling Al-Sabah family. In December 2006, the Information Minister resigned rather than face grilling and the March grilling of the Health Minister (a ruling family member) led to the resignation of the entire cabinet. Since the beginning of parliamentary life in Kuwait, 37 grilling requests have been submitted as of mid-2007, but the parliament has never removed a minister via a no-confidence vote. If the Amir sees that a no-confidence is likely to pass, some observers predict he will dissolve the parliament. The Amir, if he does dissolve parliament, could call new elections within two months, as stipulated by the constitution, or whether he would suspend the parliament for a longer period of time. A parliamentary crisis can still be avoided if the minister resigns.

On August 1, 2006, the Amir issued Law Number 42 reducing the number of electoral districts in Kuwait from twenty-five to five. The government hoped to achieve two objectives via this electoral redistricting. First, by dramatically increasing the size of each constituency, the GOK seeks to reduce the phenomenon of vote buying. Prospective parliamentarians may no longer secure election by paying off several hundred voters - their constituencies now encompass tens of thousands of voters. Second, it sought to ensure the election of parliamentarians with broader popular appeal, as opposed those who represent narrow factional, sectarian or tribal interests. In addition, with each voter now having the option of selecting up to four candidates, vice two, the government hoped voters will have more freedom to select a greater variety candidates.

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Page last modified: 07-12-2012 19:16:05 ZULU