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Two weeks to polls: Election tempo gathers steam
November 14, 2016, 11:17 am

On 16 October, His Highness the Amir Sheikh Sabah Al-Ahmad Al-Jaber Al-Sabah dissolved Kuwait’s parliament citing, “circumstances in the region... and security challenges”. He also announced that elections for a new National Assembly would be held on 26 November.

With Kuwait readying to go to polls in two weeks, we take a look at the National Assembly, its role in safeguarding the interests of citizens and some of the factors involved in election process.

The Constitution of Kuwait was drafted by an elected Constituent Assembly and issued, approved and promulgated in 1962 by the late Amir Sheikh Abdullah Al-Salem Al-Sabah. The constitution adopted a parliamentary system, along with some features of a presidential system, for the country’s government. 

The constitution advocates a flexible separation of government powers into legislative, executive and judicial. The legislative power is vested in the Amir of the State and the National Assembly; the Executive power is vested in the Amir, the Cabinet headed by the prime minister and the Council of Ministers; the judicial power is vested in the courts, which shall exercise it in the name of the Amir.

Parliament: The legislature in Kuwait comprises of a unicameral house called the National Assembly or Parliament which is the country’s top legislative body. It is composed of 50 members elected directly by universal suffrage and secret ballot from among the country’s registered voters.

In addition to the 50 directly elected parliamentarians, the National Assembly also includes the Prime Minister and up to a maximum of 15 members who form the Council of Ministers. At least one of the appointed ministers has to be an elected representative. The Prime Minister is appointed or relieved of duty by the Amir. The ministers are also appointed or relieved of duty by the Amir, on the recommendations of the prime minister.

The legislative term of the National Assembly is a maximum of four years, which can be extended by law to meet exigencies in times of war. The term of the assembly may also be shortened if it is dissolved by an Amiri decree. The Amiri decree dissolving parliament should indicate reasons for the dissolution and announce a new election within a period not exceeding two months from the date of dissolution.

Elections: For electoral purpose, the country is divided into five constituencies with 10 deputies elected from each constituency. Each eligible voter registered in a constituency is allowed one vote, and the 10 candidates with the most number of votes are declared elected from that constituency.

There is no minimum threshold of votes needed to win a seat and voting is not compulsory. Also, there are no reserved seats or quotas for women or other categories. If two or more candidates receive the same number of votes, the election committee draws a lot to pick the winner. There are also no limits to the number of terms a parliamentarian can serve.

Candidates seeking a parliament seat have to make a deposit of KD500, which is reimbursed if they are able to win at least 10 votes from their constituency. However, the amount is forfeited and paid to a charity in case the candidate fails to win the minimum votes or they withdraw their candidature after the date of withdrawal. The withdrawal date is fixed at seven days before the election date.

Vacancies arising between general elections are filled through by-elections. However, no by-election is held if the vacancy occurs within six months of the expiry of the legislative term.

Eligibility: Any Kuwaiti citizen whose age is 21-years or older, living in the country at the time of the election and registered in one of the five constituencies, is eligible to vote in that constituency.

Any Kuwaiti citizen whose age is 30-years or older, resident of the country at the time of the election and with the ability to read and write in Arabic, is eligible to stand as a candidate for parliamentary elections.

Any person, who has been sentenced to imprisonment, convicted of a felony or dishonorable crime or has been naturalized within the last 30 years, as well as army and police personnel are not eligible to cast their vote or stand as candidates.

In addition, the head of state, ministers of state, members of the judiciary, executives of the Electoral Commission, members of the Electoral Commission and members of the armed forces or police force, are not allowed to stand as a candidate during the term of their office.

Parliamentary oversight: As per law, there are no official political parties in Kuwait and candidates have to run as independents in elections. However, upon winning a seat, members usually form informal parliamentary blocs that tend to lend support and vote en-bloc on bills and issues presented before parliament.

Major de facto political parties in previous parliaments included the National Democratic Alliance, Popular Action Bloc, Hadas (Kuwaiti Muslim Brotherhood), National Islamic Alliance and Justice and Peace Alliance. Together the blocs accounted for a mix of liberals, secularists, populists, nationalists and Islamist members.

The National Assembly is a powerful institution in the country. While the Amir can veto laws, the National Assembly has the right to override the veto by a two-third vote. The Assembly is also vested with the constitutional right to approve or disapprove of an Amir’s appointment.

Every member of the Assembly and members of the government have the right to initiate bills. In order for any bill passed by the National Assembly to become effective, it needs to be sanctioned by the Amir and then promulgated and published in the official gazette. The National Assembly is also tasked with debating and approving the state’s annual budget and, depending on the work requirement, authorized to form special standing committees, as well as ad hoc and permanent committees, from among its elected members.

In addition, the National Assembly also supervises the executive through submitting questions, raising any subject of general interest for discussion and setting up committees of inquiry. The supervisory role could lead to an interpellation, or what is termed a ‘grilling’ of the concerned minister, which would then be followed by a vote of confidence.

Though there are 16 cabinet members who generally have the same rights as the elected parliamentarians, they cannot vote when an interpolation leads to a no-confidence vote against one of the cabinet members. Therefore, if the minister is unwilling to submit to interpellation, or fails to win the vote of confidence from the house, he or she is obliged to immediately submit a formal resignation.

Under such circumstances, the cabinet can either, accept the minister’s resignation and appoint a new person in place, or it can circumvent the whole process by citing extenuating conditions and submit its resignation to the Amir. The Amir then decides whether to appoint a new cabinet or hold fresh elections.

Also, though the Assembly cannot raise a vote of confidence against the Prime Minister, it can nevertheless decide not to cooperate with the prime minister and submit the matter to the Amir for resolution. The Amir then again decides whether to relieve the Prime Minister of his office and appoint a new cabinet, or dissolve the National Assembly and hold new elections.

With the parliament endowed with powers to oversee the government’s functioning and conducting inquiries into government actions and questioning ministers over their plans and policies, Kuwait is credited with having more government accountability and transparency than any other Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) state. But this parliamentary scrutiny has also often led to discord between executive and legislative, which have resulted in dissolution of the parliament. The latest dissolution on 16 October of this year is the ninth time in 54 years that the parliament has been dissolved.

Parliamentary oversight and constant squabbling between executive and legislative has also stymied the government’s ability to push through much-needed economic reforms. With many major development plans needed to revive and invigorate the economy in limbo, it is no wonder that Kuwait cannot mirror the successful growth and amazing progress witnessed in some of the neighboring countries.

- Staff Report

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