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Elections in Kuwait

Elections in Kuwait are held for both the National Assembly (Majlis al-Umma) and for the Municipality. Kuwait's 1962 constitution calls for elections to the unicameral National Assembly at a maximum interval of four years. Elections are held earlier if the Emir exercises his constitutional power to dissolve the parliament.

Suffrage

Kuwait has universal adult suffrage for Kuwaiti citizens who are 21 or older, with the exception of

(1 ) those who currently serve in the armed forces and, (2 ) citizens who have been naturalized for fewer than 30 years.

The Explanatory Memorandum of the Constitution bars members of the ruling family of the Mubarak branch (the branch from which the Emir must descend) from running for election to the National Assembly, though the Memorandum does not explicitly prohibit these members of the ruling family from casting votes. It is not clear if the prohibition on candidacies would be enforced. Some members of the ruling family are found on the voter rolls, though prominent members of the family do not vote.

In 1996 naturalized citizens were given the right to vote, but only after they had been naturalized for at least 30 years.

The franchise was expanded to include women on May 16, 2005, in a 35-23 vote with one abstention. Under pressure from Islamists, the right of women to run as candidates and to vote was made subject to Islamic Law: for example, men and women will vote in separate polling places.

Most residents of Kuwait are not citizens and consequently do not have the right to vote. Kuwait's citizenship law, in theory, gives citizenship to those who descend, in the male line, from residents of Kuwait in 1920.

Districts and voting procedures

Prior to 2006, Kuwait has been divided into 25 electoral districts, each of which elects two members to the National Assembly, for a total of 50 elected members (additional members sit as appointed members of the cabinet). Each voter could cast ballots for two candidates, though it is also possible to vote for only one candidate. In each district the candidates who win the largest and second largest number of votes earn seats in the National Assembly.

In 2006, the National Assembly passed legislation to divide Kuwait to 5 electoral districts only, which was a major issue in the preceding election campaign. The voter now can cast votes for 4 candidates and in each district the highest 10 candidates earn seats. It is hoped that this would make vote buying more difficult and decrease the importance of tribe, family and sect in elections.

Kuwait was divided into ten districts in the National Assembly elections between 1963 and 1975. Each district elected five deputies to the Assembly. Before the 1981 elections the government redistricted Kuwait, creating the system of 25 districts. Following the redistricting, fewer Shi'ite candidates won seats in the Assembly. This was a deliberate result of the redistricting, and it followed the 1979 Revolution in Iran.

Primaries

Tribal and sectorial primaries are illegal in Kuwait, though the prohibition is rarely enforced and in practice tribes (and in some districts, sects) do hold primaries. These primaries allow tribes to avoid splitting their votes among a number of different candidates, thus helping tribes to ensure that their members vote for one or two candidates, making it more likely that these canddiates will win seats in the National Assembly. Many non-tribal Kuwaitis oppose these primaries on the grounds that it increases the importance of tribal affiliation and makes it more difficult for those who do not belong to tribes to win seats in predominantly tribal districts.

Fairness of elections and government interference

Elections in Kuwait meet a relatively high standard of fairness. The government does not interfere in the counting of the ballots (the one exception was the election of 1967 in which the government manipulated the results in a few districts).

The Kuwaiti media - with a number of Arabic language dailies - extensively cover campaigns. Candidates have ample opportunities to meet with voters. The very small size of districts makes electronic media less important in elections. Candidates enjoy a wide degree of freedom to take political stands, and the press extensively covers statements made by candidates.

In recent years Kuwaiti elections have been marred by persistent reports of vote buying. Both the government and wealthy candidates are accused of buying votes, and it is widely thought that the overall effect is to help pro-government candidates. In the 2003 elections several groups launched campaigns to discourage Kuwaitis from selling their votes.

Some candidates emphasize their close ties to the government and promise that, if elected, they will deliver government services to their constituents. In the parliament, these deputies are known as "service deputies." It is widely thought in Kuwait that the government promises the delivery of services to other deputies in exchange for votes on important issues.

Election results

It can be difficult to summarize Kuwaiti election results. Political groups and parliamentary voting blocs exist, however, actual political parties are illegal. While it is possible to determine how well the members of formal political groups fare in elections, most candidates do not belong to one of the formal political groups. Some of these candidates may receive support from one of the formal political groups and others adopt a clear ideological position as Islamists, liberals, or leftists. Some candidates associate themselves with the government. Yet in a number of cases it is difficult to determine, and to classify, the ideological positions of candidates and deputies.

In the 2003 elections the liberal/left Minbar al-Dimuqrati group lost the two seats it held in the 1999 parliament. The Salafis doubled their representation, to 6 seats. The Hadas lost several seats, winning only 2 in the 2003 elections. The Popular Bloc lost 4 of its 10 seats.

Once elected, many deputies form voting blocs in the National Assembly. Following the 2003 elections, according to Al-Dustoor (a Kuwaiti newspaper published by the National Assembly, July 20, 2003) 16 deputies joined the Islamist bloc; 6 joined the Popular Bloc (a populist group that includes both bedouin and Shi'i deputies); 4 joined the liberal bloc.

Turnout was around 80% in the elections, held on July 5 2003.

Election history

The earliest modern elections in Kuwait were held in 1921. Elections were held again in June and then in December of 1938 for a majlis al-tashri'i, or Legislative Council. The ruling family dissolved the second Council in 1939. Following independence in 1961 elections were held in 1962 to elect 20 members to the constitutional convention.

The 1962 constitution calls for elections to be held at a maximum interval of four years (or earlier if the Emir dissolves the parliament). Kuwait's first National Assembly was elected in 1963. Subsequent elections were held in 1967, 1971, and 1975. In 1976, however, the Emir issued a decree suspending the parliament. New elections were held in 1981 and again in 1985, but the Emir again suspended the parliament in 1986. Following protests, the government held elections to an unconstitutional majlis al-watani in 1990, just before the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait. Most Kuwaitis rejected this majlis: organized political groups, across the political spectrum, boycotted the elections and did not run candidates. Only a few deputies from previous parliaments ran for seats in the majlis al-watani, and most of these were from outlying Bedouin districts. Fulfilling a promise made during the Iraqi occupation, the Emir held new elections for the National Assembly in 1992. Elections were held again in 1996. On May 4, 1999, the Emir once again dissolved the National Assembly. This time, however, it was done through entirely constitutional means, and new elections were held on July 3, 1999. Parliamentary elections were next held on 5 July 2003. On May 21, 2006, the Emir dissolved the National Assembly through constitutional means.

The next elections were held on June 29, 2006. This was the first general election in which Kuwaiti women could vote. Over 340,000 Kuwaitis, including about 195,000 women, were eligible to vote for 253 candidates, including 28 women, but the women candidates failed to win a single seat .

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