The Kuwaiti National Assembly (parliament) passed two draft laws for Kuwaiti women rights but rejected three others with the help from the government who later combined with its supporters to shoot down the law that calls for writing off interest on Kuwaiti loans. Angry over the turn of events, there were mixed reactions from various sections of MPs, but many of them criticized the government and 27 of them signed a statement calling against passing the 2010/2011 budget to force the extension of the current parliament term.
The drama began as the government voted against five draft laws to enhance the civil and social rights for Kuwaiti women but two of them were passed and the three others failed to get the required number. Women MPs strongly criticized the government after the session with Asil Al-Awadhi and Rula Dashti insisting that they will resubmit the rejected laws for consideration.
Government spokesman and Communications Minister Mohammad Al-Baseeri said that the government backs women rights but it was forced to oppose the laws because the government was not consulted before the concerned committees approved them. The first law passed on women rights amends the civil service law to grant Kuwaiti women the social allowance if their husbands do not get it.
The law also provides Kuwaiti women employed in the government a 70 day maternity holiday which can be extended for a further two months with full pay. The holiday can also be extended for four more months with a half pay. The law allows the minister to grant Kuwaiti female employees with a long unpaid vacation for between six months and three years. Kuwaiti women employees are entitled for a daily two-hour reduction in working hours for breast feeding for two years.
The second law changes the immigration law to grant children of Kuwaiti women from foreign husbands permanent residency and exempts them of residency fees and allows Kuwaiti women to sponsor their foreign husbands. The assembly however rejected a law calling to grant Kuwaiti housewives a monthly salary of KD 350. It also rejected two other laws, one exempting children of Kuwaiti women from a foreign husband of health insurance fees and another to provide them with free education.
The assembly passed the two laws in the first reading but failed to force a second and final reading and accordingly all the laws will have to be studied again by the assembly in the next term starting late October. On the other issue, the assembly rejected with a 33 against 26 vote the law that calls for scrapping interest on bank loans obtained by Kuwaiti citizens.
The law was passed by the national assembly several months ago. The government rejected the law and sent it back to the assembly. To override the government rejection and make the law mandatory, MPs had two options: either vote on it during this term but with a two-thirds majority, or wait until next term to re-pass it only with a simple majority. Supporters of the law knew that they will not get the magical two-third majority of 44 votes and were banking on the next term.
But parliament speaker Jassem Al-Khorafi stunned them when he announced that since the law did not get the simple majority of the vote it will be taken off of the agenda which means it will not stay for another vote in the next term. Khorafi said his decision was based on the internal charter but veteran MP Ahmad Al-Saadoun and several other lawmakers disputed Khorafi's conclusion and insisted they will still have the right to have another vote on it next term.
However, Baseeri appealed to MPs to pass amendments on the government sponsored defaulters fund which is scheduled to take place today. The defaulters fund is the government answer for the law to scrap interest. The fund, which is expected to have a capital of as high as KD 1 billion, will provide assistance only to Kuwaiti debtors who are unable to repay their debt.
Meanwhile, the statement signed by the 27 MPs urged other lawmakers not to pass the state budget unless the assembly had debated and passed a number of highly important bills and issues. Under Kuwaiti law, the assembly term cannot be ended before passing the state budget and delaying the action would automatically mean extending the current term.
June 22, 2010
Analysis and Forecast: Increasing Risk
The events at the Kuwaiti parliament have been one of the most tense in Kuwait since the last elections. Although they did not involve a grilling or questioning of a government minister, which has been the direct reason why previous parliaments have been dissolved or governments falls, they exposed some very serious differences of opinion not only within Kuwaiti society, but also the GCC as a whole. The differences are noticed in Kuwait as it is the GCC’s most democratic country. On all the issues discussed, there are strong opinions on both sides.
On the social front, the issue of rights for husbands and children of Kuwaiti women is a very contentious issue. “Preserving the local culture” has been used as a reason to reject giving spouses of Kuwaiti women rights. This has to do with a deep-rooted fear of diluting the local culture, in a country where over two thirds of the population is expatriate.
The totally separate issue of interest rates could in the near future become a very serious one, threatening Kuwait’s banking sector. This is because in March 2010, a Kuwaiti court ruled in favour of relieving a Kuwaiti citizen from having to pay interest on a bank loan he took, citing that conventional banks, unlike Islamic banks, are unIslamic and “breach the constitution”. Although the case is now under appeal and it will be several months before a decision is made, the citizen is understood to be supported by Islamist MP’s. Because the issue of the whether conventional banks are constitutional is in courts, it is not being directly discussed in parliament yet. After the court rules, in either side’s favour, the issue of interest charged by conventional banks in Kuwait will likely dominate the political debate, with Islamist MP’s directly calling for the abolishing of conventional banks altogether. The fact that this has now reached this stage in parliament means that it will likely be a major issue after the recess, with the Kuwaiti banking system at stake, as conventional banks form the basis of the Kuwaiti banking system.
The figure below shows the make-up of the Kuwaiti parliament. Islamist MP’s and some independents are likely to be strongly in favour of banning conventional banks.