The Kuwaiti executive branch is composed of a hereditary Emir and the Council of Ministers, whose members are recommended by the prime minister and approved by the Emir. The Emir also appoints the prime minister. The unicameral legislative branch is the National Assembly (Majles Al-Ummah). It currently has 65 members, fifty of whom are elected for four-year terms of office whereas the rest are ministers who sit as ex officio members.
Kuwait’s first National Assembly was elected in 1963, with follow on elections in 1967, 1971, 1975, 1981 and 1985. The National Assembly was dissolved 4 times. The first dissolution took place in 1976 and was unconstitutional. The constitution was suspended until 1981 .The National Assembly was unconstitutionally dissolved a second time in 1986. The constitution was restituted after Kuwait’s liberation from Iraqi occupation in 1991 and parliamentary elections were held in October 1992. Then, in October 1996 the National Assembly was dissolved for the third time, although on constitutional grounds. Parliamentary elections were held two months later. The fourth dissolution of the National Assembly was constitutional and took place on May 21, 2006 and new elections were held on June 29, 2006.
The Emir of Kuwait, sheikh Sabah Al-Ahmad Al-Sabah issued on March 19, 2008 a decree dissolving the National Assembly (Parliament). The Emir’s decision followed the resignation of all cabinet ministers on March 17, 2008. The ministers announced that they were unable to cooperate with the parliament. They complained of irresponsible behavior and unfair usage of parliamentary authority by some parliament members. Cabinet resignation left the Emir with two alternatives according to the Kuwaiti constitution: to call for a new government or to dissolve the parliament and call for new elections within 60 days. The minister of cabinet affairs Faisal Al-Hajji said that a decree will be issued on March 26 inviting the electorate to elect a new parliament on May 17, 2008. The upcoming parliamentary elections are of special importance because it will be conducted according to the 5 electoral districts that were approved in 2006 instead of the old system of 25 electoral districts.
The main parliamentary blocs include: The Islamic Constitutional Movement (ICM); the Salafi Movement; the National Democratic Movement (NDM); the Kuwait Democratic Forum (KDF); and the Shiite National Islamic Alliance (NIA).
Voting is not compulsory. The right to vote is extended to all Kuwaitis over the age of 21 and to all those who have held Kuwaiti citizenship for at least thirty years. In addition, all who have lived in Kuwait since 1920, and their descendents, are also granted suffrage. Members of the police and armed forces are ineligible to vote. In 2003, about 15 per cent out of an estimated population of 885,000 Kuwaitis were eligible to vote.
The Kuwaiti parliament approved an amendment to the Municipal Council Law on May 16, 2005, that gives Kuwaiti women full political rights including electoral rights for municipal elections. 35 deputies voted in favor of the proposed amendment, 23 opposed and one deputy abstained. In October 2003, a committee headed by the Deputy Prime Minister had authored a decree calling for female suffrage, but the National Assembly did not then approve it. The parliament had reviewed a similar decree in November 1999 and overturned it by a two-vote margin. The latest amendment of the municipal council law guaranteed women's participation in the 2009 municipal elections. However, the vacancy of a municipal seat caused by the appointment of the head of the municipal council as a minister in the new government formed in mid January 2006 opened the way for Kuwaiti woman to run for this seat. Jinan Boushahry announced on February 13, 2006 that she was a candidate in the partial municipal elections to occupy the vacant seat. Kuwaiti law stipulate that partial elections be held within 60 days of the vacancy of any municipal or parliamentary seat. Subsidiary municipal elections took place on April 4, 2006. Boushahry faced a male candidate Mr. Youssef Souwaileh who had the support of Al-Awazem tribe residing in the contested electoral district. The results were announced late on April 5, 2006. Mr. Souwaileh won the vacant municipal seat by receiving 5436 votes (3032 male votes and 2404 female votes). Mrs. Boushahri received 1807 votes (950 male votes and 857 female votes). A second female candidate received 79 votes only. Women's participation rate was low. Only 28.7% of eligible females cast their votes. Despite Mrs. Boushahri's loss, local observers believe that her performance was good in light of the strong tribal support rendered to her male opponent.
Election Laws, Systems and Processes
Twenty-five electoral constituencies each elect two members to the legislature. In each district, the two candidates with the highest percentages of the vote receive the seats, even though they may receive less than a majority of the votes. Candidates must be citizens of Kuwait at least 30 years of age. Seats vacated in between election periods are filled through by-elections. Political parties, though formally banned, are tolerated, and candidates officially run as independents. In place of political parties, there are several major political groupings that function like parties, composed of groups such as Bedouins, merchants, leftists, nationalists, Sunni and Shi’a activists. Although the Emir maintains the final word on most government policies, the National Assembly plays a substantive role in decision-making, with powers to initiate legislation, question government ministers, and express lack of confidence in individual ministers. For example, in May 1999, the Amir issued several landmark decrees dealing with women's suffrage, economic liberalization, and nationality. The National Assembly later rejected all of these decrees as a matter of principle and then reintroduced most of them as parliamentary legislation.
The electoral system in the country leads to the formation of parliamentary blocs. After the 2003 elections, blocs came to be inclusive of different political movements in an attempt to reform the electoral system. One important goal of the government is an overhaul of the electoral system that would reduce the electoral constituencies from 25 to five. However, the government decided on May 17, 2006 to reduce the electoral districts to 10 and presented a draft law to the parliament for approval. Twenty nine deputies who belong to the opposition rejected the proposed amendment, insisted on the previously agreed-upon 5 districts law, and walked out of the session. The government decided to refer its draft law to the constitutional court. In an unprecedented act in Kuwait’s history since independence, 3 deputies filed a request for questioning the prime minister, Shaikh Nasser Mohammad al-Sabah. The questioning was set for May 29, 2006. The questioning request meant that the parliament was unable to cooperate with the prime minister. According to article 102 of Kuwait’s constitution in such a situation the prime minister notifies the Emir who has the power to dissolve the parliament, dismiss the prime minister and appoint a new cabinet. On the evening of May 21, 2006 the Emir decided to dissolve the parliament and issued decree no. 146/2006 to that effect. He also issued decree no. 147/2006 calling on the electoral constituency to elect a new parliament on June 29, 2006. The above development gave Kuwaiti women a one year earlier opportunity to participate in legislative elections through running and voting.
The Department of Electoral Affairs is one of the five departments of the General Department for Legal Affairs at the Ministry of Interior. The Department is responsible for the implementation of laws, especially those pertaining to the election of parliament members. The Department is also concerned with implementing the Decree of disciplinary penalties and the regulations, decisions and orders attached to this Decree. The Department also assumes all measures pertaining to conducting public and supplementary elections, as well as implements all necessary measures for the annual revision of voters’ registration lists in coordination with relevant agencies. The last task includes conducting studies and gathering statistics and information related to elections.
The latest legislative elections in Kuwait were held on 16 May 2009. These were early elections of the13th Kuwaiti parliament brought about by the dissolution of the parliament by the Emir in March 2009 following bitter disputes between parliament members and government ministers. The elections were conducted according to electoral law No. 42 of 2006 which adopted a system of large electoral districts instead of the previous 25 districts. Each of the five districts elects 10 candidates to parliament, and each voter is entitled to vote for 4 candidates. The elections were contested by 210 candidates, including 16 women. The total number of voters was 384,790 of whom 46% were men and 54% were women (175,679 men and 209,111 women). Members of the Kuwaiti army are not entitled to vote.
Detailed election results carried many changes in the Kuwaiti political landscape: the Fundamentalist Islamic bloc won 2 seats instead of the 4 seats it held in the 2008 elections. The Constitutional Islamic Movement, which is the political arm of the Muslim Brothers Group, won one seat compared to 3 seats in the 2008 elections. In total, Islamists won 11 parliamentary seats compared to the 21 seats they occupied in 2008 elections. The Shiite minority increased its share from 5 to 9 seats. Tribal candidates won 25 seats and the Popular list won 3 seats. Women succeeded in holfing 4 parliamentary seats. In the first district, ex-Minister Dr. Ma’souma Al-Mubarak came first with 14,247 votes. Dr. Salwa Al-Jassr received 4776 votes in the second district. Dr. Aseel Al-Awadhi held second place in the third electoral district, with 11,860 votes. Finally, Dr. Rola Deshti held 6th place in her district and received 7666 votes.
Previous legislative elections took place in Kuwait on May 17, 2008. The number of eligible voters was 361,000, of whom 55% were women. For the first time Kuwaiti voters went to the polls to elect the 50 members of parliament according to the system of large electoral districts which include 5 districts instead the previous 25 electoral districts. The share of every district is 10 deputies and a voter has the right to elect 4 candidates in his/her district instead of the previous rule that allowed the election of 2 candidates. The number of candidates was 275, of whom 27 were women. Major electoral issues raised by a number of candidates included: improving education and health services, combating the rising cost of living and better distribution of oil revenues among Kuwaiti citizens. Participation rate was 69% of eligible voters, a rate lower than customary participation rates in previous legislative elections.
The elections were contested by Islamic, tribal and liberal political groups, in addition to independents. Final results gave the conservative forces, both Islamic and tribal, a very decisive victory, while liberal forces were weakened. Islamists won 21 seats and the tribal forces occupied 24 seats. The tribal strength is explained by the fact that two of the five electoral districts (the fourth and the fifth) are exclusively tribal districts. None of the 27 women candidates was able to win a parliamentary seat. However, the candidate of the National Democratic Alliance, Aseel Al-Awadi, did well by occupying the 12th rank in her district. Two other women candidates, Rola Dashti and Salwa Al-Najjar, achieved good results.
Detailed election results were as follows: the share of the Society for Heritage Revival (Sunni fundamentalist trend) increased its seats from 3 to 4. The constitutional Islamic Movement (Muslim Brothers Group) was the major loser as its representatives in parliament were reduced from 6 to 3. Liberal groups under the umbrella of the National Democratic Alliance were weakened as they were able to win 4 seats only. The Kuwaiti God's Party (a fundamentalist Shiite trend) won 3 seats. In addition, 8 pro-government candidates won parliamentary seats. In terms of sectarian balance, Sunnis have 21 representatives in parliament while Shiites have 5 representatives. Moreover, out of 45 ex-deputies who contested elections 28 were reelected. Political opposition groups retained their control of parliamentary majority (not counting the 15 government ministers who are defacto members of parliament). No violations were recorded during the voting process. However, the two-month election campaign witnessed acts of violence between some tribes and security forces when the tribes attempted to organize preliminary internal elections in violation of Kuwaiti laws.
Legislative elections also took place on June 29, 2006. Kuwaiti women participated in the elections by voting and running for the first time since they gained full political rights in 2005. The total number of registered voters was 340,000, of whom 57% were females. The total number of parliamentary seats is 65, of which 50 were elected by direct secret ballot in 25 electoral districts, while the remaining 15 seats are for cabinet members who become deputies by virtue of their position. A total 249 candidates, including 27 women, competed for the 50 seats. The candidates were divided into two broad political blocs. The opposition joined forces under a loose alliance called “Kuwait Rally”. It included the following political groups: The Democratic Forum; Independent Liberals, Muslim Brothers and Fundamentalists. Its slogan was “Men of the next phase”. Their campaign slogan was “combating corruption”. The other political bloc included candidates loyal to the government and members of the ruling family. Forty-five members of the dissolved parliament ran for re-election. Included in this group were 28 out of the 29 opposition deputies. The elections were preceded by the most intense electoral campaign in Kuwait’s history. Women and youth were heavily represented in the campaign. Overall the participation rate was 66% of registered voters, while the female participation rate was 35% of eligible females. The elections were organized by 341 committees under the supervision of more than 700 legal personnel including counselors, judges and public prosecutors, in addition to the “Election Transparency Committee” (an independent Kuwaiti Committee). Election results were as follows: The opposition bloc won the majority of parliamentary seats (35 seats) up from 29 seats in the dissolved parliament. Among the opposition, Islamists won 21 seats. The largest of their groups, “The Islamic Constitutional Movement” representing the Muslim Brothers, increased their representation from 2 to 6 seats as a result of their efficient women’s organization. Opposition candidates ranked first in 21 electoral districts and won all of the seats in 10 districts. 19 ex-deputies were not re-elected. Six Shiite candidates had run for elections, but only 4 were elected, one less than in the dissolved parliament. None of the 27 female candidates were elected to the new parliament.
The latest municipal elections in Kuwait were held in June 2009. The elections were contested by 71 candidates in 10 electoral districts for 10 seats of the Municipal Council, while the remaining 6 members are appointed by the Emir of Kuwait. According to statistics published by the Elections Committee, 71,402 men and women voters casted their votes out of a total of 374,000 eligible voters. The voter turnout was 20%. The low participation rate was attributed to a number of factors, including: holding the elections on an official work-day, the beginning of the summer season and travel abroad of many citizens, a lack of enthusiasm for local elections following the parliamentary elections that created high interest among citizens and exhausted their energy. The voter turnout in the 10 districts was as follows: 25% in the first district, 23% in the second, 21% in the third, 14% in the fourth, 22% in the fifth, 23% in the sixth, and 14% in the seventh district. The highest participation rate was in the eighth district reaching 28%, whereas it was 20% in the ninth and 16% in the tenth district.
Previous municipal elections in Kuwait took place on June 2, 2005. Fifty-four candidates competed over 10 municipal seats in 10 electoral districts. The remaining 6 municipal members are appointed by the Emir of Kuwait. Around 140 thousand male citizens were eligible to participate in these elections. The term of the municipal council is 4 years. Candidates must be at least 30 years old, must read and write Arabic and have no criminal record. Participation rate was rather low, not exceeding 50% of eligible voters. Tribal candidates won 6 seats, Islamists and "urban" candidates each won 2 seats. For the first time in Kuwait's history, the government appointed in June 2005 two women to the municipal council.
In the previous municipal elections, held in June 1999, the government calculated turnout at 62%, which was higher than in previous elections.