The Times Kuwait Special Report
A draft decree expected to be issued by the cabinet this week will call for parliamentary elections to be held on Thursday, 29 September. The snap election, midway through the 16th legislative term of parliament, follows the dissolution of Parliament by His Highness the Amir Sheikh Nawaf Al-Ahmad Al-Jaber Al-Sabah on 22 June.
Announcing the parliamentary dissolution in a televised address, His Highness the Crown Prince Sheikh Meshal Al-Ahmad Al-Jaber Al-Sabah, speaking on behalf of His Highness the Amir, said that the elections were necessitated “to rectify the political scene which involved lack of harmony and non-cooperation, differences and disputes, giving precedence to personal interests and involving practices and actions that undermine national unity.”
As the country prepares for yet another election, the question many are asking is whether new elections with a new premier at the helm will help bring about changes to the underlying dynamics that have precipitated political impasse in parliament for well over a decade. It also remains to be seen if the newly announced cabinet will be able to find solutions to the persistent challenges that have mired previous governments and stymied the country’s growth and progress over the years.
Among the many issues that need to be addressed are social, economic and political demands that have festered without any resolution for too long. At the forefront is the corruption, nepotism and cronyism charges that have been leveled at the government and public figures in the past. In the first few weeks that the new cabinet led by the Prime Minister His Highness Sheikh Ahmad Al-Nawaf has been in office it appears determined to put an end to these practices proactively.
Other administrative and socially impinging matters, such as reducing and realigning the bloated public sector to better serve the public; skilling and preparing young citizens to meet market needs, and finding meaningful, productive employment for them in the private sector and encouraging entrepreneurships. As these are works in progress it could take time to be realized effectively.
On the economic side, diversification of the economy away from its overreliance on hydrocarbon revenues, increasing private sector participation, attracting foreign investments, introducing necessary financial reforms such as reducing subsidies and implementing a value added tax to buttress the budget, as well as passing the public debt bill that has been held up in parliament since 2017, are no doubt issues that the new government will need to confront on a priority basis.
However, it is on the political front and in parliament that the new government could face some of its earliest challenges. A rarity in the region, Kuwait’s elected parliament has more powers and is more inclined to wield this muscle than other similar entities in the region. Contentious relations between the executive and the legislative arms of government have hobbled parliamentary proceedings that have then led to most of the dissolutions in the past; they have also held back growth and progress of the country.
The prevailing systemic dichotomy in governance between an elected parliament, and a prime minister and his cabinet who are appointed through a decree by the Amir of Kuwait, has often been cited as the main cause for the persistent dissonance in parliament, and in the political sphere in Kuwait. Finding an effective solution that is acceptable to all stakeholders is no easy task, but it is one that will undoubtedly raise its head as election approaches.
Although democracy as practiced in Kuwait is far from perfect and is beset with several shortcomings that are inherent to democratic systems around the world, as well as a few that are unique to this country, it is nevertheless the only enduring parliamentary process in the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) states, and one of the freest in the wider Arab world.
Parliament in Kuwait is not a token institution and has the powers to supervise the executive, set up committees of inquiry, and question cabinet members and hold a vote of confidence that could lead to removal of the concerned minister. This could then catalyze a cabinet reshuffle or resignation that would lead to the Amir assigning a new government or dissolving parliament and calling for elections.
The upcoming election follows the resignation in early April of the previous cabinet headed by Sheikh Sabah Al-Khaled Al-Hamad Al-Sabah, and the subsequent dissolution of parliament on 2 August. Parliamentary dissolutions are nothing new to Kuwait; the country has witnessed around 10 parliamentary annulments and over a dozen general elections since it embarked along the path of democracy and a parliamentary form of governance following independence in 1961.
With new elections scheduled for next month, a look at how the election process evolves and how representatives are elected would be quite timely. Elections in Kuwait are a relatively straight-forward process taking into consideration the partly parliamentary, partly presidential, semi-democratic structure of governance that the country is endowed with. Elections are also based on nuances that determine who gets to vote, who does not; how electoral districts are determined and how the process often gets undermined.
Following the country’s independence in 1961, the then Amir of Kuwait Sheikh Abdullah Al-Salim Al-Sabah issued a decree to hold elections to a Constituent Assembly on 20 January, 1962. The 20 members elected to the Constituent Assembly, along with 11 nominated ministers, were mandated to compile a constitution to establish the system of government, the norms of operation as well as the obligations, rights and duties of citizens. The Constitution was promulgated on 11 November,1962.
Article 6 of the Constitution states that the system of government shall be democratic, under which sovereignty resides in the people, the source of all powers. The Constitution also states that the system of government is based on the principle of separation of powers into legislative, executive and judicial. The legislative power is vested in the Amir and the National Assembly in accordance with the constitution; 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.
The legislature in Kuwait comprises a unicameral house called the National Assembly or Parliament, which comprises 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 ex-officio members who form the Council of Ministers. At least one of the appointed ministers, and up to a maximum of three, has to be an elected representative.
The Constitution defines the term of the National Assembly as four calendar years commencing from the day of its first sitting. It is also mandated that elections for the new Assembly should take place within 60 days preceding the expiry of the previous parliamentary term. The term of the Assembly may be truncated if it is dissolved by an Amiri decree, which should clearly specify the reasons for the dissolution.
According to Kuwaiti law, one must be a Kuwaiti citizen over 21 years old and a registered voter in order to participate in the general elections. And, herein lies the rub; Kuwait’s citizenship law, in theory, only grants citizenship to those who descended, in the male line, from residents of Kuwait in 1920. Children of women married to foreigners are, again in theory, not citizens. Thus there are now almost 796,000 eligible voters in the upcoming elections, from a Kuwaiti population of over 1.4 million. .
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 electoral districts, is eligible to cast a 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.
At the same time, 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. In addition, any person, who has been sentenced to imprisonment, convicted of a felony or dishonorable crime or has been naturalized within the last 30 years, is not eligible to cast a vote or stand as a candidate.
The constituencies are organized into five electoral districts, with each district comprising several residential areas. Districts 4 and 5 have the largest number of voters and together they comprise 38 large residential areas. However, irrespective of the residential areas they represent or the number of voters in the electoral district, each of the five districts are accorded only 10 representatives in parliament.
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. If two or more candidates receive the same number of votes, the election committee draws a lot to pick the winner.
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.
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 account for a mix of liberals, tribals, urbanities populists, nationalists and Islamist members.
Everyone, citizens and residents, voters and those who watch on the sidelines are hoping that the 2022 elections and subsequent 17th legislative term of parliament under the new government will be a change from the past.