Kuwait: Elections in the time of Covid-19

This week’s blog was written by GPG’s MENA Project Manager Nayla Zein, who reflects on the recent parliamentary elections in Kuwait and what their results mean for female representation and democracy in the country.  

Kuwait has a relatively long tradition of parliamentary practice with one of the most powerful and vibrant parliaments in the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC). The oil-rich Gulf country was the first in the region to establish a parliamentary system in 1962, after gaining its independence from the British. The Emir limited his own powers by approving a written Constitution that made Majlis al-Umma (Parliament) the sole source of legislation. It is a unicameral legislature comprised of 50 elected members in multi-seat constituencies, in addition to 15 ex-officio members who are appointed by the Prime Minister and serve as government ministers. 

Electoral system and elections results 

In 2012, and after years under a four-voting system where voters could use four votes of equal weight to pick four candidates, the late Emir Sheikh Sabah Al Ahmed Al Sabah, issued an Emiri decree to change the electoral system to a single non-transferable vote, which sparked protests in the lead up to the elections. This system is still in use today. 

The 2020 parliamentary elections in Kuwait reveal a lot about where the country stands today. Under very harsh conditions imposed by the coronavirus pandemic, this is the first election taking place since the new Emir, Sheikh Nawaf al-Ahmed Al Sabah, succeeded his half-brother to the throne.Only 19 of the incumbents returned to their seats in 2020, while 31 new figures were elected. It is also noteworthy that 30 Members of Parliament are under the age of 45. These indicators are telling of a strong desire for a shift from business as usual at a time when the country is facing tremendous socio-economic challenges and growing frustration on the part of the population. 

Campaigning during a global pandemic 

To convince voters, the 326 candidates running for parliament were limited in their ability to perform regular outreach activities due to Covid-related restrictions. A lot of meetings and communication migrated online, making campaigning headquarters obsolete and replacing the usual diwaniya setting, a gathering where citizens can meet their candidates and discuss the matters that concern them over tea and coffee. This new online reality also boosted the platforms of opposition-leaning candidates, who won almost 50% of elected seats. The internet also facilitated women’s access to political spaces usually dominated by men. The 60% voter turnout, despite the pandemic and strict measures, confirmed the eagerness of the population to participate in the democratic process. 

Activism around the election 

Many issues dominated the Kuwaiti public discourse prior to the elections. The central issue cross-cutting all political orientations was the commitment to fight corruption which has plagued the state in recent years. Corruption is seen as one of the main reasons for the country’s economic predicament, the latest of which being that Kuwait forecasts a USD 30 billion budget deficit in 2021. As declining oil prices caused a liquidity crisis, the situation was further exacerbated by the coronavirus pandemic. 

This prompted young Kuwaiti activists to take to the internet to inform citizens and voice their opinions and concerns with regards to candidates and the electoral process. Raqib50 (“monitor50”) is one example of a website that gathers data on the work of MPs and ministers. It aims to strengthen accountability and promote transparency by informing voters on what politicians are doing. Hewar (“dialogue”) was also one of the notable projects initiated by the Kuwaiti newspaper al-Jarida, using video interviews to bring the candidates closer to the constituents and expand the conversations on reform, post-oil Kuwait and corruption among other topics. 

Activism also tackled the central question of women’s participation in politics. Women gained the right to vote in 2005 and made up 52% of eligible voters in 2020. Mudhawi’s list, a women-led platform that supported female candidates with essential campaign services to promote female representation, became a very successful initiative that gathered a strong following in the run up to elections. However, despite efforts and hard work, no women were elected to Parliament which dealt a big blow to the women’s agenda in Kuwait. Activists fear that this will have a detrimental impact on policymaking in general but especially on issues that affect women. Efforts are now geared towards the local elections where women also need to assert their leadership. 

What the election tells us as observers 

The environment enabled by the Kuwaiti elections in 2020 magnified the will of Kuwaiti citizens to be part of the national conversation that is shaping their country’s future. It showed that ‘Politics Matter’ to everyone and on all levels, especially as the young population of Kuwait made extensive contributions to the way people think and interact with the democratic process. The new cohort of MPs will seek to address the aspirations of Kuwaitis, starting with combating the global pandemic, corruption, and diversifying the economy beyond hydrocarbons as set out in the “New Kuwait” Vision 2035. And although low female representation is symptomatic of the several barriers that women still face in political life, their male counterparts who became parliamentarians are now expected to act as male-allies and mainstream gendered approaches to advance, promote, and support the women’s agenda in Kuwait.