Explainer: Everything you need to know about the 2020 Kuwaiti parliamentary elections

Kuwait City: As the registration period for the upcoming 2020 National Assembly elections ended on Wednesday, all eyes are on the 395 candidates that are running for a seat in the upcoming legislative term.

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With the election day one month away, December 5, candidates began campaigning in full wing in their electoral districts.

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Unlike previous years, this year’s election is different as it is happening during a pandemic therefore various factors are affected from the lack of campaign headquarters and diwaniyas to the demand for immediate economic and social reform. In addition, it will be the first legislative term under the rule of the new Emir, Sheikh Nawaf Al Ahmed Al Sabah and the crown prince, Sheikh Mishal Al Ahmed Al Sabah.

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“Since we are still in the midst of a pandemic it will be interesting to see how the parliament will deal with the issues that arose during the COVID-19 crisis, especially topics that deal with the economy like the public debt law that has yet been approved,” Mohammed Al Yousef, an independent researcher focused on the Gulf, told Gulf News.

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Ever since 2012, when the late Emir Sheikh Sabah Al Ahmed Al Sabah, issued an Emiri decree to change the electoral system from a four-voting system to a single nontransferable vote, there has been a large boycott movement and an increased demand for electoral reform.

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“This year marks the fourth parliament under the SNTV (Single Non-Transferable Vote) system, it is now apparent, more than ever, how unrepresentative and in cohesive the legislative institution has become because of it,” Abdullah Al Khonaini, a Kuwaiti activist and researcher, told Gulf News.

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While there are economic and political factors that will be impacting this year’s elections, the various COVID-19 restrictions have limited offline campaigning, which many have dependent on previously.

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Al Khonaini added, “however, with that being said, the utilization of online tools such as social media, content creation and virtual meetings are something to look forward to, as it is no longer restricted to a certain audience that has to be physically there to listen and debate a candidate. It is for everyone to join.”

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Another concern is voter turnout, as it is unclear what the COVID-19 situation will look like in a month’s time and how that will affect people’s willingness to go out and vote.

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Who are this year’s candidates?

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Between October 26 and November 4, there were 395 candidates that registered to run across five electoral districts, a decrease from the 2016 elections, where there were 440 candidates.

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Of those, 33 are women, with at least five women running in each district except the fourth district where there are none.

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Compared to previous years, this is the largest number of women to have ever run for parliament since they were given the right to vote and run for office in 2005.

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Majority of the 2016-2020 MPs have announced that they will be running again this year. All of the 10 previous MPs in the second district will be running, while nine of the previous MPs in the third, fourth and fifth district have announced their candidacy.

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The number of candidates could change from today to election day as the election law No 24, stipulates that any candidate running for parliament can step down up to seven days before the scheduled election date.

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While it is common for past MPs to run for another term, “it all depends on the MP’s performance and social connection within their district to decide whether they have another chance or not,” Al Khonaini explained.

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Al Khonaini has been keeping track of the MPs performance through his work with Raqib50, which is an online platform that aims to raise awareness about the MPs record, from the number laws they proposed and voted on to the committees they serve on and their attendance during hearings.

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The point of Raqib50 is to, “reinforce this idea of transparency and accountability between the two. Also, with today’s heavy usage of social media, people are holding their MPs accountable by sharing their voting records on certain topics (whether through Raqib50 or other mediums). This needs to be the norm, and people should always have access to information, the right information,” Al Khonaini pointed out.

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Whilst 50 candidates will end up winning a seat in parliament, 10 from each electoral district, the constitution mandates that at least one and maximum three of those 50 are nominated to become a minister. Therefore, there is at least one MP that acts in capacity as both an MP and a minister.

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Understanding who the voter is

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This year there are 567,694 registered voters, according to A Jardia newspaper, a spike from the 2016 elections where there were 483,000, as reported by Election Guide.

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According to Kuwaiti law, one must be over 21 years old and a registered voter in order to participate in the general elections.

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“I think this is normal if we look at the statistical numbers of Kuwaitis, Kuwait is a very youthful population as the majority are between the age of 1-35 years old, with the 1-20 years old group making up the biggest demographic of the population based on PACI data. Therefore, the spike is reflective of the population growing older and registering to vote when they are 21 years old,” Al Khonaini pointed out.

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Although the majority of registered voters throughout Kuwait are women, 52 per cent, the fifth electoral district is the only district where there are more male registered voters than women.

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“While we saw an increase in the number of female registered voters in recent years, the fifth districts still remain more conservative and traditional, which could mean that there is not much awareness about women’s participation in politics,” Al Yousef said.

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Boycott movement

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While the number of voter registration has increased, many people today have still decided to boycott the elections. Amongst them is Nasser Al Dousari, a Kuwaiti national, who decided to join the boycott movement three years ago mainly because, “the parliament today, after the government’s interference and their sponsorship of the majority of MPs for them to pass its laws, has become like a theatre and I am not satisfied to be a partner in it.”

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“I will not participate in any upcoming elections as long as the one-vote system is in effect,” Al Dousari told Gulf News.

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He added, “the only reason I will participate in the future is if there is a new election law that is issued by the parliament.”

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On the contrary, there is a gradual reemergence of the ‘opposition’ in this year’s elections, who have announced their candidacy and have decided to run.

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“Today, the word ‘opposition’ is a loosely used term that depends on the context, unlike in 2012 when the term was used to refer to MPs who took to the streets and protested corruption and the one-vote system. We saw many people from the ‘opposition’ that boycotted the 2012 elections but then ran in 2016 and now in 2020,” Al Yousef explained.

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He added, “we will see a stronger parliament that will be much more difficult to control by the government and the speaker, as in the case of 2016. There is a potential for a stronger opposition.”

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Amongst them are prominent ‘opposition’ figures like Hasan Johar and Jamal Al Sayer who announced that they will be running in this year’s elections. In an interview with the Kuwaiti news channel ATV, Johar explained that he will be running for parliament, after six years of boycott, because of the public’s demand for him to run and his aim to confront corruption and advance legislative reform.

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“It is inevitable that we see more opposition figures returning to parliament. It has always been a matter of time. I think that the one-vote system is the new normal. The ‘opposition’ would have to play within this limited space, hoping to change the law through parliament,” Al Yousef said.

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Trending topics 2020

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While each candidate focuses on a few issues that they are passionate about or are relevant to their constituents, there are several trending topics that are being discussed in the lead up to the elections, from corruption and political reform to the demographic imbalance and the education system.

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One of the most recurring topics that are currently being discussed by the candidates is the importance of political reform. While the topic is broad, many candidates have pointed out their discontent with the status quo and performance of the parliament, mirroring the general public’s sentiments.

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The topic of changing the one-vote system, otherwise known as the single nontransferable vote, has gained traction recently, especially after some MPs in the previous legislative term were able to put forth draft laws calling for the voting system to change.

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“Several candidates have adopted the issue of the one-vote system because they understood how this voting system is ineffective and is a system that does not allow for any progressive change,” Al Yousef said.

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He added, “also, the one-vote system strengthened tribalism and sectarianism creating significant barriers and obstacles that reduce a chance for reform especially since a citizen’s representation is limited (only 10 per cent) and there is less of an opposition that would hold ministers accountable.”

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Although corruption is a hot topic this year, as Kuwaiti press reports have been dominated by money laundering scandals in recent months, many candidates have spoken about the rise of corruption under the umbrella of political reform.

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“Corruption has always been an important issue, but this year it is a central topic. Almost every candidate has brought up the issue of fighting corruption,” Al Yousef pointed out.

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From the massive Malaysian Fund scandal (known as the 1MBD case) to the Bangladeshi MP, these cases have involved several MPs who used their position in parliament to facilitate transactions for local and foreign actors, whether it be in human trafficking or money laundering.

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With various governmental officials and MP sounding the alarm on the demographic imbalance, as expats make up 70 per cent of Kuwait’s population, the rise in anti-expat rhetoric has increased amongst citizens, thus signaling that it will be an important topic discussed during the month long campaign session, as well as the upcoming legislative term.

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“During the COVID-19 period, we saw decade old issues, like the demographic imbalance, resurface and were exacerbated because of the pandemic. We saw how during the lockdowns expats suffered severely due to horrible living conditions. Therefore, many candidates have adopted this issue as a central topic, contrary to previous years as people viewed the issue as a long term problem that does not require immediate attention,” Al Yousef explained.

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Last month, during the closing session of the National Assembly, the 53 MPs and minister present unanimously approved a demographic imbalance law that has now been referred to the government for implementation.

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It is unclear what the law exactly states but one of the articles stipulates that the government is required to determine the quota for the total number of expats within a year of the law going into effect.

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Although the demographic imbalance issue is not new, according to Al Khonaini, “the tune has changed; some candidates are framing their campaign messages in a xenophobic rhetoric in addressing the demographic imbalance which hasn’t been the case in previous years.”

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15th legislative term

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From the time of the 15th legislative term elections that took place in November 2016, this is the first National Assembly general election to be held since, as each legislative term is four years.

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The past parliamentary session, which ended on October 20, is the sixth legislative term in the history of Kuwait to hold a supplementary fifth session, otherwise known as the closing session. The last legislative term that had a closing session was the ninth legislative term that began in 1999 and ended in 2003.

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Every legislative term since 2003 has been dissolved and elections for a new parliament were carried out.

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According to article 107 of the Kuwaiti constitution, “the emir has the right to dissolve the parliament by a decree that shows the reasons for this dissolution. And if the parliament was dissolved, new elections for a new parliament should be held within no longer than a two-month period from the date of dissolution.”

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Between 1975 and 2016, ten parliaments were dissolved by an Emiri decree.

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