International American Council

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Middle East and North Africa

Kuwaiti National Assembly dissolved after challenge to voting system

A case by the Kuwaiti regime’s opposition to alter the voting system was thrown out this month by the country’s Constitutional Court, leading the court to work in conjunction with Kuwaiti emir Sabah al-Ahmad al-Sabah to dissolve the current National Assembly and call for new elections.

Kuwait has only held elections with universal adult suffrage since al-Sabah came to power in 2006. Since then, there have been five general elections held in six years, an indication of the volatility and unreliability of the country’s democratic system. Three of these five elections came about as a result of al-Sabah dissolving the National Assembly for one reason or another, another indicator of democratic instability.

Upheavals in Kuwait’s democratic system may have led to an economic lag and a lack of necessary reforms, according to Reuters, especially because Kuwait’s governmental system’s checks and balances make it necessary for the emir and the legislature to work in conjunction with one another.

The most recent elections in December 2012 did not arise from the dissolution of parliament, but rather because the Constitutional Court deemed the elections held in February of that year to be invalid, because of the apparent invalidity of al-Sabah’s decree dissolving the National Assembly. However, before the December 2012 elections al-Sabah changed the voting rules of Kuwait’s electoral system in his MP’s favor, and these elections were widely boycotted by the opposition because of al-Sabah’s apparent breach of the constitution.

Electoral laws may seem dry and of little actual importance to the running of a country, but a country’s system of voting and of ordering and counting those votes actually can make quite a significant difference in the eventual composition of a government or legislature. Even a small change in rounding or distribution can mean that a party or ethnic group has a more or less proportionate share of seats.

Al-Sabah’s main change was to reduce the number of votes per person from four votes to one. The previous system was one of plurality at-large voting, or multiple non-transferable voting (MNTV), in which voters choose several candidates vying for multiple seats, and the candidates who take the seats are the candidates who get the greatest total number of votes. The new system, proposed by al-Sabah, is a first-past-the-post, or FPTP system, which is used by many other countries in the world, including the United States. In this system, candidates run for single seats.

Some scholars insist that a plurality at-large voting system leads to tactical voting as opposed to sincere voting, but the Kuwaiti opposition claims that a FPTP system makes it more difficult for alliances to be formed, a crucial gambit for oppositional minority groups as diverse as Islamists, liberal intellectuals, and youth activists, considering political parties are banned in Kuwait. 

It is likely that both of these critiques of the old and new systems are true, indicating the difficulty of arriving at a truly fair voting system for Kuwait, and how crucial the correct system is for a country’s political groups.

By Laura Gates

Source: Al Jazeera, The New York Times, BBC, Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance, Reuters

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