THE Kuwaiti emir's announcement yesterday that parliamentary elections would be held "next year" has left opposition groups still doubting the ruling al-Sabah family's commitment to parliamentary democracy. The promise, one of many on democracy, was made in a characteristically vague speech by Sheikh Jaber al-Ahmed al-Sabah during a televised address to the nation, his first since his return three weeks ago after Kuwait's liberation in late February. Elections would be held, God willing, said the emir, after the restoration of stability and the return of all Kuwaitis to their country.
But in the absence of an election date, Kuwaitis' doubts and suspicions still linger that somehow the Sabah family will try to wriggle out of a revival of democracy. That demand has unified as never before all political groups active in Kuwait.
Opposition groups gave a cautious welcome to the speech but expressed concern over the failure of the emir to give a date.
"We are glad that the emir has said specifically that an election will be held in accordance with the 1962 Constitution," said Abdullah Nibarri, the Kuwait Democratic Forum's spokesman. "The idea of looking for an alternative appears to have been put aside now. But if you give the government nearly two years, we feel they will use their influence to have an impact on the nature of the next National Assembly."
Political groups had previously demanded elections be held within six to nine months' time. Mr. Nibarri said he was concerned that the constitutional vacuum would persist for possibly another 19 months and that, in the interim period, a government of national unity should be formed.
Nibarri also demanded that the National Assembly, which was suspended by Sheikh Jaber in 1986, should be revived. Nibarri also hinted that a campaign of popular meetings could be held to pressure the government to speed up the process leading to elections.
The Islamic Constitutional Movement, another major political party that has emerged since liberation, said the vague timing of elections was "unsuitable" for the uncertain times Kuwait was experiencing. "Rebuilding the country will be in the hands of one side. Next year will be too late to consult the Kuwaitis," said Issa Shaheen, the movement's leader.
In the same speech, Jaber also promised to "study" the issue of women voting in future parliamentary elections. Women, he said, had proved their endurance and strength during the crisis. A number of Kuwaiti women were tortured and raped during the Iraqi occupation.
The emir also held out the promise that the status of another major chunk of the population, Kuwait's second-class citizens, would be "reevaluated." Second-class citizens are those who can trace their origin in the country back to 1945. At present, only 60,000 citizens have the right to vote in Kuwait out of a total population of some 750,000 Kuwaitis. These are the elite, the first-class male Kuwaitis whose ancestral roots in the country can be traced back to 1920 and before.
If such groups are given the vote, Kuwait's political scene would dramatically change as the number of voters would be multiplied several times over. The current electoral role of elite citizens is dominated by the major families of Kuwait, whose historical ties to the Sabah family go back to the last century.
The aftermath of the speech has left doubts in the minds of many about whether Sheikh Saad al-Abdullah, the crown prince and prime minister, will be able to form a government. Kuwait has been without a government for 20 days, largely because politicians are reluctant to join the Cabinet until the date for parliamentary elections is known.
In another typical Sabah touch, Jaber also offered Kuwaitis financial gain by ordering that all personal bank debts be canceled in Kuwait. The issue of compensation for damage done during the invasion, from which the ruling family escaped, is becoming a key political issue in the country. The order appeared, however, to refer to noncommercial loans rather than finance extended to businesses. Trading houses, large and small, will find it difficult to resurrect themselves without foreign assets to b ack new loans.
Much of the emir's speech was taken up with praise of the Kuwaiti people's steadfastness in facing the brutality of the Iraqi occupation. The catastrophe, he said, had brought the Kuwaiti people together and tested their mettle and resourcefulness.
Lengthy thanks and praises were heaped on the Gulf states and their sheikhs and kings for the help they extended Kuwait to liberate the country. The sheikh went on to thank the people of United States, Britain, France, and the Arab states that were members of the coalition. Jaber also expressed thanks to the "foreign martyrs" who had died for Kuwait's liberation. "We will not forget these foreign martyrs," he told the nation.
The emir made an appeal to the country's "foreign friends" to stay in the country to protect Kuwait from the "tyrant of Baghdad," who, he reminded viewers, had still not been removed from power. At present, security arrangements for a more permanent US presence have yet to be agreed on.
Politicians of all views were not optimistic Monday that the emir's speech would do the trick in unjamming the political stalemate that has marked Kuwait since liberation. In the absence of a government and any decisionmaking, the country has so far not yet returned to work. Shops and offices remained largely closed, and there is uncertainty even over the value of the dinar, the nation's currency.
Status of foreign workers
The major obstacle to a resumption of commercial life is the failure of the government to decide on the future of the country's foreign workers.
Until the foreign workers inside the country are told to return to work, little will happen to return the country to a semblance of normality. A major part of the foreign work force, particularly in the government sector, is Palestinian. They have been told not to return to work.
In the meantime, Kuwaitis appear to be voting with their feet. Thousands have left since liberation and only about a quarter of the Kuwaiti population is currently in the country.