Kuwait’s recent parliamentary elections have revealed new sociopolitical alignments in the country. The recent elections have revealed a new role for the civil society—and a decline in the influence of tribes and religious sects in determining the winners of parliamentary seats. Instead, the competition was largely a battle between policy agendas; as such voters selected candidates based on what they viewed as the national interest, rather than sectarian or tribal loyalties. As a result, the elections have signaled a new role for the civil society—and a decline in the influence of tribes and religious sects in determining the winners of parliamentary seats.
Another novel phenomenon was the significant difference between the amount of attention that candidates received on social media and the number of votes they received. Some candidates have hundreds of thousands of followers on social media but ultimately gained few votes, while several of the winners had a minimal online presence. This is further proof, if any was needed, that social media does not truly reflect voters’ opinions about candidates.
Many Kuwait analysts have observed that hardliners had won more seats than expected; however, their voices remain marginal, and they will most likely have little impact on the parliament’s work. Analysts have also assumed that since the opposition won a larger number of seats than in the previous parliament, strengthening its control, it will exert a greater degree of influence on Kuwait’s executive branch. However, this may not be the case. The real test for the new parliament is its ability to collaborate and find common ground once sessions start.
New Election, New Electoral Problems
Kuwait’s most recent election also underscored serious problems with the “one-vote system.” Each Kuwaiti citizen has a single non-transferable vote for their preferred candidate, and ten candidates were elected in each of Kuwait’s five electoral districts. Across the five districts, there was a significant difference in the number of voters for the first and the tenth winner—the difference across the five districts between the first and the tenth winner was 71 percent in the first, 76 percent in the second, 77 percent in the third, 60 percent in the fourth, and 63 percent in the fifth. Essentially, many Kuwaitis wasted their vote on a single high-profile candidate who will have no more voting power in the parliament than the tenth-place winner. Less popular candidates knew prior to the election that in order to secure a seat, they would need roughly 2,000 votes in order to finish tenth or higher. In the first and second districts, the last winner secured fewer than 2,000 votes, and in the third, the last winner received 2,800 votes—out of nearly 500,000 eligible voters.
Among the 50 new MPs, the one with the highest percentage of votes came from the fifth district, winning 25% of the vote there. The winning MP with the lowest percentage of the vote is from the second district, where he received only 13% of total votes cast. This is an indication that the one-vote system has three primary impacts. A single non-transferable vote system creates a wide dispersal of votes, resulting in many wasted votes for candidates who do not win. It also restricts the number of options for Kuwaiti voters who can vote for one member only, inhibiting their ability to decide who would represent them in parliament. More worryingly, it undermines the premise that a Kuwaiti member of parliament is tasked with representing all of Kuwait; if he can be reliably elected with 2,000 votes, it incentivizes him to cater to the needs of those 2,000 voters rather than Kuwaiti society at large, knowing that others who are dissatisfied with him will split their votes at the next election.
Mission and Opportunity
The latest election results have produced some hope. Two women were elected, following a two-year period without any. Many of the new members are reformist technocrats inclined toward pursuing concrete policy changes. Even so, the election also produced old, previously elected members who have produced nearly nothing in their prior parliamentary work.
Therefore, the newly elected members must form a bloc and present a reformist national program that would review many of the laws that impinge on individual freedoms in Kuwait. Second, Kuwaiti parliamentarians should end the mechanism of a single non-transferable vote. Legislative reforms are essential to ending the paralyzing deadlock between Kuwait’s parliament and executive. Finally, the parliament must review its bylaws to eliminate any gaps that led to misuse by members and properly monitor corruption, nepotism, or any other violation of Kuwaiti laws.
While turnout in Kuwait’s most recent election reached 64 percent—slightly higher than the previous election in 2020—it is still quite low by Kuwait’s historical standards, suggesting that there are a large number of Kuwaitis who are dissatisfied with the country’s political process. Some likely believe that parliaments are useless—an understandable position, given the parliament’s past struggles with good governance. In recent years, the parliament played a serious role in delaying the development of economic plans and issued laws that put restrictions on individual liberties. The parliament also developed layers of laws that exhaust citizens with bureaucracy..
The current parliament can reverse these trends. Some Kuwaitis have high hopes about the new parliament’s capacity for reform, while others are less optimistic. However, after the Crown Prince’s speech on June 22, where he dissolved the parliament and put the responsibility of reforming the parliament work in the hands of the people in being responsible in the election of new members, one can only wait for better performance by the new parliament. Changing the mechanisms of the legislature could help block corrupt and sideline inefficient members, allowing new members to institute a promising vision for reform and progress. However, since they are new, they will undoubtedly need experience navigating Kuwait’s complicated political environment. It may be too early for these high hopes; only time will tell.
The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of Gulf International Forum.