Saturday 2 February 2013

Kuwait: Democracy by decree (PO)

M D Nalapat

Friday, February 01, 2013 - Nothing is an undiluted good or evil. After a point, the one may change into the other, confounding both admirers and critics. Kuwait has had a written constitution for fifty years, a document which formalizes the contract between the ruling Al Sabah family and the people of Kuwait. Today, this city-state is easily the most democratic in the region, because of two factors. The first is the high level of conacientization of the Kuwaiti people, who are much more individualistic than their counterparts elsewhere. The second strand in the democratic foundation of the Kuwaiti polity is the adherence of the Al Sabah family to the constitutional compact signed between the then head of their family (who was automatically also the Head of State) and the people. Unlike in some other parts of the region, where members of the ruling family separate themselves from the rest, in Kuwait the Al Sabahs mix and mingle freely with the rest of the populace. In a conference room, it is often difficult to distinguish them from others. Unlike much of Asia, where there still exist feudal traditions, in Kuwait, some aspects of the relationship between the rulers and the ruled is almost Scandinavian in their informality.

Interestingly, many of the reforms that have been introduced in Kuwait owe their origin not to the elected assembly but to the Amir and his closest advisors. An example is the expansion to women of the right to vote and to stand for elections. Kuwaiti women are far less tolerant of patriarchy than their sisters elsewhere. Only in Syria are the women quite as overtly independent as they are in Kuwait. In contrast to Saudi Arabia, where women cannot travel by themselves or take up many occupations or even drive a vehicle, in Kuwait (and to a considerable extent in the UAE, Jordan and Oman), they enjoy a status that is co-terminus with that of their male counterparts.

This is to be welcomed, for human progress accelerates sharply the greater there is gender justice. Those societies which treat women as second-class citizens are usually those where discoveries, inventions and innovation are conspicous by their absence. A better-educated woman means children who have a better chance of success, It means better health, because of the increased awareness of the need for proper nutrition and to avoid some of the factors which cause disease, such as unsanitary surroundings. Those who take a linear and monochrome view of democracy will be surprised to know that the giving of the power to vote and to run in elections to women was finally given only after the Amir of Kuwait decided that enough was enough, and that he would ignore the opposition of a large number of legislators to the move.

In India, for many years, there has been a demand that a third of the seats in Parliament and the state assemblies should be reserved for women. As is usually the case, those tasked with drafting a law for the purpose have come up with a construct that rotates “women only” constituencies, thereby creating huge instability in the political system. It would have been far better to increase the number of seats by a third, and make a third of (the expanded number of ) constituencies in India those where only a woman can contest. That way, existing constituencies would be spared, although even in the unreserved seats, there may be women candidates, some of whom may win in the polls.

Given the abysmal standard of school education in several parts of the world, each democracy has within it huge numbers of people who favour policies which would harm rather than help the national interest. The (non-military) population of the US has more guns than the combined militaries of NATO, including weapons such as assault rifles, that of use only in the commission of mass murder.However,millions of voters in the US insist on their right to buy the firearm of their choice, forgetting that the right to bear arms was created during a time when the US had a militia rather than an army, and every able-bodied citizen was expected to participate in battles involving first the British colonial masters and later, the American Indians, who were ruthlessly hunted down by a society as heavily armed then as it is now, at a time when the British are no longer the masters of the US but are regarded - a trifle uncharitably - as an American “poodle”.

The surfeit of guns in the hands of US ctizens is at a time when it was more than a hundred and fifty years ago that the American Indians put up any sort of credible defense to the war of European-origin settlers against them. The persisting power of the US gun lobby is testimony to the fact that views may not be right, even if they be held by millions. Across both West Asia as well as South Asia, pressure from the more extreme and less enlightened segments of society is resulting in the passing of laws that should have no place in a genuinely free society.

In India, for example, it is laughably easy to get a book or a movie banned, or even an art exhibition. All that is needed is to collect a few dozen people and create a ruckus. So nervous is the government of the public mood that the demands of the troublemakers are usually conceded in full. Rather than the enlightened having a veto over the wishes of the obscurantist, it is the other way about. Sadly, for much of its modern history, India has had to endure leaders who dance like puppets to what they perceive to be the “public mood”, which is usually that of the group which shouts the loudest. Sometimes, such “voices of the masses” have to be ignored in favour of implementing policies that may lack popularity but which are necessary, such as the many reforms implemented by Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder in Germany, reforms that cost him his job, but which made Germany the powerhouse it is today.

In Kuwait as well, needed reforms - such as giving women the vote or ensuring that each elector has the choice of only a single candidate - have often come through the Amiri Diwan rather than through the legislature. It has been a case of democracy by decree, rather than by the consent of many of the legislators. Hopefully, Kuwaiti society will evolve in a way that ensures moderneducation to all its citizens, so that they can shake loose from those who seek to regress into the past in an era when modernity is the key not just to achievement but to survival.

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