DUBAI (Reuters) – Kuwaiti opposition figures proposed electoral reforms and a pardon for dissidents in recent meetings with the prince who has since become the new emir, they said, seeking to improve stormy ties with the government that have sometimes flared into unrest.
The opposition figures, both liberals and Islamists, presented the proposals to Sheikh Nawaf al-Ahmad al-Sabah last month while he was still crown prince and before the death on Tuesday of late ruler Sheikh Sabah al-Ahmad, they said.
The Kuwaiti government did not immediately respond to a Reuters request for comment. Sheikh Nawaf was sworn in as emir at parliament on Wednesday.
Political stability in the oil producing state traditionally depends on cooperation between the government and the outspoken parliament, the oldest legislature in the Gulf Arab states and one often dominated in the past by opposition groups.
It has the power to pass and block legislation, question ministers and submit no-confidence votes against senior government officials, actions that have in effect stalled economic reforms or led to cabinet reshuffles.
While the government tolerates criticism to a degree rare among Gulf Arab states, the emir has the last say in state affairs and criticising him is a jailable offence.
Sheikh Sabah in 2012 broke the hold of opposition groups on parliament by using executive powers to amend the voting system, sparking some of the largest protests in the country’s history.
“We look forward for a political detente with Sheikh Nawaf who has shown some positive signs, including by meeting with opposition leaders,” said Ahmad Deyain, secretary general of the opposition group Kuwaiti Progressive Movement.
“A pardon for the exiles would be a good start especially with the upcoming (parliamentary) elections,” he added.
Under the old electoral system, voters were allowed to cast ballots for up to four candidates, which the opposition has said allowed alliances that partly made up for the absence of political parties, which officially are barred.
The voting system introduced in 2012 allows votes for only a single candidate, which the opposition says makes alliances difficult.
Among those in self-imposed exile are lawmakers who took part in the storming of parliament by protesters and opposition MPs in 2011 over alleged government graft and mismanagement.
Others include Kuwaitis who openly criticised the emir, who the constitution says is above politics, or other Gulf rulers.
Opposition figures said they presented the new emir with a proposal entitled “Kuwait Document” that calls for a reformist government, the launch of an anti-corruption campaign, greater judicial independence and changes to the electoral law.
“Starting the discussion is already a good step; I expect that we will continue on that path, which could lead to breakthroughs in several issues including reconciliation with some political blocs,” Mohammad Al-Dallal, a current MP from the opposition Islamic Constitutional Movement, told Reuters.
Courtney Freer, research fellow at LSE Middle East Centre, said the new emir would start with economic reforms, including an anti-corruption drive, as most Kuwaitis wanted that.
“The big question for the opposition is whether the new emir will change the electoral law,” Freer told Reuters.
Parliamentary elections are due this year.
Abdul Hameed Dashti, a Shi’ite MP in exile in Geneva since 2016, was sentenced to jail in absentia on in several cases, including charges of insulting Saudi Arabia and Bahrain.
Dashti, who has accumulated sentences of 73 years in jail, told Reuters by telephone he hoped pardons would be issued.
(Additional reporting by Ahmed Hagagy, Writing by Aziz El Yaakoubi, editing by Ghaida Ghantous, William Maclean)