On Saturday, Kuwait held its first National Assembly election since the September ascension of Sheikh Nawaf al-Ahmad al-Sabah as emir. Historically, Kuwait has held the freest and most competitive elections among the Arab Gulf States. Despite concerns that the pandemic would deter voters from participating in the election, nearly 70 percent of citizens participated.
Analysts were surprised that 24 out of 43 incumbents lost their seats, though this figure is consistent with previous elections and incumbent reelection and electoral volatility in other non-democracies. Overall, 326 candidates ran for 50 seats across five districts. Public gatherings were prohibited because of the pandemic, though many candidates appeared to ignore these restrictions.
Many candidates called for a range of policy changes, such as public sector reform, an electoral law amendment and an end to corruption. Since 2019, several graft scandals implicating a variety of government officials have led to a noticeable rise in public frustration with both the government and parliament. New faces raise the possibility that the next parliament will take action. But these elections will not fundamentally change Kuwait’s political landscape. Here’s what you need to know about the election — and why the balance of power between the government and parliament is unlikely to change.
Turnout was high, despite the pandemic
Constitutional constraints and the passing of Kuwait’s emir so close to the end of the previous parliament’s term prevented the government from considering a pandemic-related election delay. In October, the government limited in-person campaign events to ensure citizens could vote safely. On election day, Dec. 5, the government required citizens to wait outside polling stations, wear masks and socially distance — measures not all polling stations observed.
The pandemic prevented many citizens from attending in-person campaign events, but social media traffic revealed high levels of interest in the election. New platforms like Raqib 50, Niqashna and Hewar provided access to candidates that voters might not have otherwise heard from.
For the most part, this election did not break from the past. Tribes again held informal primaries to select candidates before the election, for instance. Though 29 women participated as candidates — almost twice the number of women who ran in the 2016 election — none of them won. However, issues such as the right of Kuwaiti women to pass citizenship to their children gained attention on new platforms such as Mudhawi’s List and Gray Area.
Overall, liberals, Islamists and independents ran in similar numbers to the 2016 election. But a lack of coordination among these groups continued to stifle the appeal of these political movements. Reports of vote buying, a persistent feature of Kuwaiti politics, were again common this year.
Kuwait’s political landscape won’t change, despite new faces
Frustrated with the previous parliament’s inaction, citizens voted against incumbents in large, but historically unremarkable, numbers. Of the 43 incumbents who ran, only 19 won. Another 10 MPs elected this week have served previously. Kuwait’s electoral system is designed to ensure balance among social groups while limiting the appeal of ideological movements, such as Islamists and liberals. Predictably, this is exactly what happened on Saturday — making it unlikely that newcomers will change Kuwait’s increasingly gridlocked political system.
There are no political parties in Kuwait: Candidates run as individuals. Informally, some affiliate with various Islamist and liberal movements. But Kuwait’s single nontransferable vote (or “one vote”) system promotes personalistic, clientelist linkages between candidates and voters. This system also prevents candidates from coordinating platforms and campaigning together.
Last Saturday was no exception. Though candidates’ ideological affiliations are difficult to accurately identify, Islamists won roughly 20 percent of seats and liberals won roughly 10 percent — no change from 2016.
The electoral law encourages candidates to rely on tribal, sectarian and other kin-based appeals. Group-based identities are socially and politically salient in Kuwait. Candidates rely on these identities to appeal to members of their immediate networks to win. In this light, the election results are unsurprising. Six Shiite candidates won in both 2016 and 2020. The number of tribal MPs increased slightly to 29, from 26. More than half ran in tribal primaries designed to limit competition within the tribe on election day.
Despite continuity in the balance of groups and the small number of MPs representing ideological movements, there were a few surprises. Two Islamists in the Fifth District (which is predominantly tribal) did not participate in their tribal primaries — yet won seats. In the First District, Hassan Jowhar, a prominent liberal politician who has boycotted elections since 2012, won handily. These MPs could galvanize opposition among a handful of like-minded MPs, though opposition activity in parliament remains limited. Anwar al-Ficker, an outspoken liberal with ties to the opposition, was prevented from running in the Fourth District. Other former opposition MPs were prevented from running and voting due to their participation in protests in 2011-2012.
Here are the next steps
Emir Sheikh Nawaf al-Ahmad al-Sabah must now decide how he and his government will work with parliament. Soon after the results were announced on Sunday, an Emiri decree called for the opening session of parliament to be held on Dec. 15. Before this session, newly re-appointed prime minister Sheikh Sabah al-Khaled al-Sabah must select up to 15 ministers.
It’s not yet clear how Sheikh Nawaf will approach parliament, so these next steps will provide the first clear signal of how he plans to govern. Ministers serve as voting members of parliament, shape committee assignments and could influence the possibly contentious election of a parliamentary speaker.
Before the last parliament completed its term, the government unsuccessfully tried to approve a law that would allow it to fund a larger budget deficit. The government will try again, but other concerns loom large on the agenda. Throughout the campaign, candidates used the proliferation of corruption and graft scandals to call for changes to the management of public funds. Other issues, such as an amendment to the electoral law, amnesty for opposition politicians, the employment of expatriates and a controversial Bidoon (stateless) law will probably be a priority. Though it is unclear how Kuwait’s new emir and the National Assembly will work together, the balance of power between the two will probably remain unchanged.
Daniel L. Tavana (@danieltavana) is a postdoctoral fellow at the Council on Middle East Studies at Yale University. Abdullah al-Khonaini (@abdullakhonaini) is a Kuwait-based co-founder of Raqib50, an online platform that monitors the performance and activities of MPs in the Kuwait National Assembly.