Dispatch: Examining Kuwait Electoral System

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Kuwait is a country in West Asia that borders Iraq, Saudi Arabia, and Iran. Officially, it is a semi-constitutional emirate with a parliamentary system of government. Kuwait gained independence from the UK on June 19, 1961. The ruling family is the Al Sabah, who has governed since 1859 and play a pivotal role in Kuwaiti politics. In particular, at the top of the state bureaucracy, there is the cabinet, under the control of the prime minister, who has the power to dismiss it along with every senior executive official, local governors, and officers in the armed forces. Historically, the Al Sabah family heavily influenced the cabinet. Twelve of the fifteen members of the post-independence cabinet were family members. Starting in 1970, after receiving notable criticism, the crown appointed cabinet ministers from prominent Kuwaiti families. In addition to the cabinet, Kuwait has several agencies and public corporations. In particular, the civil service represents the more significantly developed sector. Some of the largest institutions are those providing social services (including education); in addition, Kuwait distinguishes the effectiveness of the bureaucracy in granting jobs to its citizens.

Legal Framework and Power Distribution

Before the invasion of the UK, Kuwait was one of the most politically open states in the Gulf. It was characterized by a relatively free press and an assembly elected by adult male citizens. Keeping these characteristics in mind, the authors of the Kuwait Constitution of 1962 ensured the pre-eminence of the Legislative Assembly to widen the consensus for the Al Shabah family. The Constitution comprises 183 articles and is divided into five parts:

  • The State and the system of government
  • Fundamental constituents of the Kuwaiti society
  • Public Rights and Duties
  • Powers
  • General and Transitional Provisions

Kuwait’s constitution states that the system of government shall be democratic, and sovereignty shall reside with the people. It also provides equality under the law without distinction to race, origin, language, or religion.

In Kuwait, the executive powers are in the hands of the emir, the head of the state. These powers are shared with the Prime Minister, appointed by the emir and in charge of executing the tasks handed to him (by the emir). The executive in Kuwait represents a hereditary power; consequently, the decision on who will be an emir or a Prime Minister is the exclusive prerogative of the Crown.

The Prime Minister does not hold any portfolio and cannot receive a vote of no confidence. The National Assembly must submit the request to the emir, who can relieve the Prime Minister’s office by appointing a new Cabinet or dissolve the parliament. In addition, the emir can dissolve the National Assembly at any time by decree. In that case, an election shall be held within two months from the date of the dissolution.

The executive branch’s prerogatives are to formulate the government’s general policy, pursue its execution, and supervise the work of the various Government departments. The Prime Minister presides over the Council of Ministers meetings and receives parliamentary resolutions. In addition, when the resolution requires a decree of the emir, he is obliged to pass it on to him. The Council of Ministers is divided into various sections supervised and led by the Prime Minister, who cannot hold any other public office in the State.

Moving to the legislative branch, the body endowed with this power is the Kuwait National Assembly. It comprises 66 seats, 50 of which are elected by popular vote. The prime minister appoints 16 cabinet ministers. The elected members serve their mandates for four years. The National Assembly has an annual session of at least eight months that can only be prorogued after the budget is approved. Members of the Assembly must be Kuwaiti by origin, at least thirty years old, and have the perfect capacity to read and write in Arabic.

During its first session, the Assembly must elect the Speaker and Deputy Speaker among its members. The sittings are public unless held in secret upon request of the Government or the Speaker of the National Assembly. For a meeting to be public, more than half of its members must be present; in addition, resolutions shall be passed by an absolute majority of the members present. Every member of the National Assembly can ask the Ministers or the Prime Minister questions to clarify matters of their competence. Furthermore, if the Assembly passes a no-confidence vote against a Minister, he will be considered resigned when at least ten members sign the demand.

A particular trend that continues to dominate the Assembly (and generally Kuwait politics) is the dominion of the Kuwait elite. Political opposition is non-existent (the merchant’s class made a failed attempt to create an opposition), and no opposition exists at the elections. The Constitution provides that the people with the right to vote are male nationals, having Kuwait ancestors present before 1920. In addition, the emir can dissolve the Assembly at his will.

The emir appoints the judicial body upon recommendation of the Supreme Judicial Council. The constitutional court’s main prerogative is to interpret the Kuwaiti constitution. However, it can also dissolve the national assembly. The court’s mandate only ceases if the executive branch decides on dismissal.

The Courts’ sessions are public, and after a legislative amendment passed by the National Assembly in 2014, citizens have the right to go to court and appeal against any law that raises suspicion of unconstitutionality.

As previously mentioned, no parties can be formed under the Kuwait Constitution; however, it allows for the creation of parliamentary blocs.

Peculiarities of the Political System

Kuwait’s political scene is characterized by active citizen engagement and vivid political participation. Since 1962, Kuwait has been administratively divided into six governorates. However, 96% of the population lives in Kuwait City. Around 440,000 Kuwaitis can vote in the election under a voting system often amended by the emir to favor the ruling family. Citizens can vote both at the parliamentary and municipal elections, a typical procedure of a democratic system. Generally, elections are free and competitive, with the Ministry of Interior overseeing the electoral procedure, meaning that the process could lack transparency.

Some political landmarks are represented by the emir’s decision in July 2003 to appoint a prime minister. For the first time in history, there is a separation of power between the emir and the executive. In addition, in May 2005, a vote by the National Assembly gave women the right to vote and run in elections for the 50 parliamentary seats. In October 2009, the Constitutional Court ruled that women could obtain passports without the consent of their husbands.

Since political parties are not officially recognized, parliament members tend to run as independents or create informal blocs based on shared ideologies. According to political analyst Abdelrahim Hussein, people do not vote based on the political program but rather along sectarian or tribal lines. This aspect represents a dividing factor inside the country since voting is deeply entrenched with familiar, tribal, sectarian, or friendship lines without considering the candidates’ electoral agenda.

In addition, the political landscape is often characterized by conflicts between the emir, the government, and the National Assembly over a series of policies. For example, the National Assembly was suspended from 1976 to 1981, from 1986 to 1991, and from May 1999 to July 1999 due to irresolvable conflicts inside the political arena. Again, the emir dissolved the Assembly in May 2009. Also, between February 2021 and January 2023, the cabinet resigned five times due to the growing opposition inside the Assembly. The emir assertively highlighted his prominence above the legislative, executive, and judicial powers. In addition, he can reject laws and send them back to the parliament for further revision.

Another distinctive issue in Kuwaiti politics concerns the number of people with the right to vote. Over two-thirds of Kuwaiti residents do not hold citizenship and cannot vote in parliamentary elections. Kuwaiti citizens are estimated to be more than 3 million; however, only a few are granted the right to vote. This discrepancy is caused by the Nationality Law of 1959, which grants full citizenship to those who settled in Kuwait before 1920 and maintained residence until the law’s publication date. The gravest exclusion from political participation is against the historical minority of Bidoon, who are around 80,000 to 110,000 and are not officially recognized as Kuwaiti citizens.

Elections in Kuwait

The election of the members of the National Assembly symbolizes the primary mechanism of democratic representation. With a population of 4,268,670 people, the registered voters amount to 793,646. The average turnout rate at the elections amounts to 65.26%. According to Kuwait’s Election Law No.35, citizens above 21 (except police and military) are eligible to vote. Notably, the expatriate population cannot vote, and naturalized citizens must be residents for at least twenty years before taking part in the vote. Kuwait has a multi-stage electoral process with an electoral system characterized by the Single Non-Transferable Vote (SNTV). Following Article 80(1) of the Constitution, the citizens elect fifty members of the parliament from 5 electoral districts, with the top ten winners from each district obtaining a seat in the Assembly. If two candidates receive equal votes, the polling committee draws lots, and the winner is elected. Notably, no threshold exists to win a seat, and no quotas exist for women, minorities, or other categories.

On the other hand, the candidate’s requirements entail a deposit of 500 dinars, which is reimbursed if the candidate obtains at least ten valid votes. Otherwise, this amount is devolved to charity.

Since parliamentary elections were first held in 1963, Kuwait has used four non-proportional electoral systems. In 2006, Kuwaiti activists lobbied to reduce the number of districts from 25 two-member districts to 5 ten-member districts with limited voting. Under this new system, every elector was granted four votes. The necessity of having larger districts responded to the necessity of having more votes, consequently distributing them along tribal or family lines.

Nonetheless, the emir often opts for changes in the electoral laws to favor the ruling family. For instance, in October 2012, the emir again introduced the one-vote election, limiting the voting choice. The emergency decree was accompanied by significant criticism from the tribal groups interested in maintaining their power.

Another critical aspect concerns the law concerning voter registrations. In Kuwait, there is a lack of transparency and access to information to register for the vote. This results in high turnout at the elections, with only a tiny portion of the population able to register to vote. For example, in 2013, only 440,000 people registered for the vote in a country with over 3 million residents. The issue is exacerbated by strict rules on registration that enhance the election turnout. In particular, Kuwaiti citizens must register to vote in the place where they permanently reside. The Registration Committee allows citizens to register only in February by presenting the nationality certificate and an ID. The list of registered citizens is publicly displayed from March 1 to 15, during which eventual errors can be sent to the Registration Committee.

Considering this limited time frame, many civil organizations have unsuccessfully advocated for more time to register or for citizens to be automatically added to the voter register.

Data from Elections

Generally, elections in Kuwait are characterized by varying turnout rates, reflecting fluctuating levels of political engagement among citizens. Typically, elections are accompanied by political turmoil, and the emir often dissolves the Assembly due to irreconcilable conflict with the legislative.

One of the most turbulent moments took place after the elections held in February 2012, following the Arab Spring. A group of over 30 MPs created a Majority block, particularly vocal in opposition to the government. Due to the criticism, the emir was forced to dissolve the National Assembly in June 2012 after only four months in session. The emir emitted a decree amending the electoral law in October 2012 to solve the political crisis. This new law left Kuwait’s district but switched to a single non-transferable (SNTV) electoral vote. With this change, each elector can allocate one vote instead of four, becoming one of the most criticized decisions in the country. In particular, those mentioned above tribal and familiar logic in vote allocation in Kuwait suffered a back-draw from the change in the electoral law. Before this decision, voters were free to distribute four votes among family members and tribal representatives, and elections under these terms produced relatively small oppositions. The emir’s decision caused a protest, with at least 5,000 people clashing with security forces outside the parliament.

Since the change in the electoral law, the elections of 2012, 2013, and 2016 were boycotted by the opposition to protest against the emir. Again, the assembly, regularly elected in 2020, was dissolved in August 2022 after the decision of the emir to reorganize the voting system. With a new decree, he declared that voters could register in the electoral districts corresponding to their addresses on the ID.

Notably, in the subsequent election of September 2022, a few candidates were detained for organizing vote-buying. Also, the opposition forces gained many seats, and two women were elected in the 50-seat assembly.

However, the stability of Kuwait’s politics is particularly fragile. Overall, the cabinet resigned five times between February 2021 and January 2023. The resignations often depended on tensions inside the parliament, where some individuals subjected the prime minister to a vote of no confidence or disapproved of the state budget. In particular, in 2022, Sheikh Meshal dissolved the parliament, affirming that domestic politics was ‘’torn by disagreement and personal interests’’.

The standoff was caused by delayed approval of the state budget for 2022/2023. The parliament voted for a relatively higher budget than the previous year, a decision negatively received by the executive calling for snap elections. Another cause of political impasse in the same year was a controversial draft bill drafted by the Assembly. In this instance, they asked the government to take over the consumer and personal loans of the citizens, with an estimated value of several billion Kuwaiti dinars. The government declined this move, depicting it as expensive and unnecessary. Hence, the political impasse in the short term 2021-2023 is characterized by the parliament’s willingness for social reforms and innovations. On the other hand, the emir has halted these initiatives, preferring to maintain a more conservative profile and, most importantly, protect his interests.

A political deadlock still characterizes 2024, underlining the fragmentation inside politics and irreconcilable tensions between the executive and legislative. Remarkably, when Sheikh Mishal Al Ahmed Al Sabah (current emir) came into power in December 2023, he delivered a speech accusing the Parliament and the government of ‘’ harming the interests of the country and the people’’. This declaration drastically worsened the relationship with the executive. In February 2024, the Prime Minister partially criticized the new law granting an annual salary for the emir. Soon after, the emir issued a decree dissolving the Parliament, stating that the declaration of the Prime Minister was unconstitutional.

Consequently, the emir opened the elections on April 4, 2024, which did not result in any significant change inside the Assembly. The previous Prime minister was re-elected, and the opposition maintained 29 of the 50 seats. In addition, the only woman who was part of the Assembly was confirmed. After the results, the emir scheduled the inaugural session of the new executive for May 14.

Political Issues

Kuwait went into a domestic crisis after Emir Sabah al-Ahmad al-Sabah died in 2020. The successor, Emir Sheikh Nawaf al-Ahmad al-Jaber al-Sabah, tried to address the country’s economic fallout and the spread of corruption. However, Kuwait has not yet been able to solve the crisis between the executive and the parliament. In particular, the government has been characterized by political paralysis since 2020. A strong cross-ideological opposition permeates the country, with the Islamist bloc often criticizing populist measures or the national budget. These frictions (along with internal problems) have caused the government to experience political setbacks, exemplified by a lack of cohesive policies and an economic crisis.

Freedom House depicts Kuwait as a partly free country with a total score of 36/100. In addition, the score for political rights is 13/40, and the civil liberties score is 23/60. Indeed, Kuwait represents a unique example in the Arab Gulf, characterized by a mix of monarchy and democracy, making it one of the most progressive parliaments in the region.

However, the country suffers from a series of political issues. The most relevant are 1) Corruption, 2)Lack of participation of women, 3) Lack of trust in politics, 4) Frequency of snap elections, 5) Difficulty in registering to vote, 6) Dividing interests in the country (primarily tribal), 7) Exclusion of citizens from the vote (alarming case of the Bidoon), 8) Lack of Transparency in the electoral process 9) Absence of credible opposition inside the parliament 10) Arbitrary dissolution of the parliament by the Emir.


Kuwait’s elections are generally competitive but are characterized by remarkable levels of nepotism and corruption. For example, in January 2019, a well-known journalist was detained after discussing alleged government corruption on WhatsApp. Subsequently, in November, the cabinet resigned over those corruption allegations, which led to a public feud in which the defense minister accused the interior minister of embezzling state funds.

Even considering that an Anti-Corruption Authority began operating in 2015, its general activities appear insufficient for the scale of the problem. Systematically, members of the ruling elite obstruct the official’s efforts to investigate grafts or abuse of power. In November 2019, the finance minister was forced to resign after facing criticism over public fraud.

In the public discourse, the Islamist group is the faction that raises its critical voice to end corruption and lack of transparency in the government. Nonetheless, the practice is so widespread that it inhibits the functioning of basic administration in the country.

Marginalization of Minorities

As mentioned above, about seventy percent of the country’s population are noncitizens. Citizenship is complicated to obtain since Election Law No.35 provides that citizenship must be transmitted by a Kuwaiti father and cannot be granted to non-Muslims.

Two major groups suffer from this discrimination: 1) The Bidoon and 2) The Shiite Muslims. The first is composed of more than 100.000 people who are not recognized as citizens and are systematically persecuted. The officials in the country consider them illegal residents and lack all the protections associated with citizenship. Also, a law exists in which Bidoons may try to prove their Kuwaiti nationality, but it has proven to be opaque and largely ineffective. Overall, 80,000 to 110,000 citizenship requests have been denied to Bidoon.

In addition, the Shiite minority makes up about a third of the total population but is not well represented. Of the 65 seats, the Shiite candidates often win six to eight seats in each election.

Finally, it is worth mentioning that foreign workers make up nearly 3.4 million of the total population of 4.6 million and have no prospects of attaining citizenship.

Frequency of Snap Elections

Tensions between the executive and legislative branches often call for snap elections, which have persisted since 2011. Several crises have occurred between Kuwait’s parliament and government over the last two decades, leading the emir to dissolve the Assembly ten times. The reason for this strategy’s recurrence often lies in conflicts between the executive and legislative branches rooted in various factors.

Firstly, an issue connected with the parliamentary system is rooted in the country’s history. Kuwait is the only country with a semi-democratic system in the Arab Gulf, and the Assembly holds significantly more power than the symbolic councils of Saudi Arabia and Qatar. Consequently, the executive and legislative are constantly clashing to demonstrate who yields more power in the country. On the one hand, the emir often wants to show that he is the most authoritative figure in the country. His abrupt changes in electoral laws have exemplified this and obstructed the work of the Assembly. On the other hand, the Assembly shows its contempt by employing a strategy of interpelling or grilling the ministries, which often causes a political deadlock. Consequently, it is possible to say that the first issue causing snap elections is the difficulty in finding a good power balance, underlining a system of rule of law that works inefficiently.

Secondly, the emir often dissolves the Assembly because of its fragmentation and tribal interests. The parliament of Kuwait does not enjoy a sense of unity because ethnic and tribal interests undermine collective decision-making. Consequently, the parliament is often deadlocked, causing constant frictions that the emir solves by dissolving it.

Notably, the government has not been able to solve these divisions since the emir appointed the ministries. Since the government represents an external composition (it is not part of any groups of the Assembly), the parliament does not recognize its authority (it is not formed on the will of the representatives).

The consequences of snap elections have been particularly detrimental to Kuwait. The country seems trapped in a cycle of parliament challenging the ministers and the emir calling on elections. As a result, the instability caused a huge legislative turnout that severely impacted the mechanism of governance and the economy. In particular, the social security system and the economy have been suffering from the lack of efficiency of the executive bodies.

Arbitrary Dissolution of the Parliament by the Emir

As presented before, the emir is pivotal in Kuwait’s politics. He is the country’s head of state and head of the executive branch, and following Article 107 of the Constitution, he can dissolve the parliament at any moment by a decree showing the reasons for the dissolution. An argument can be made that this power has often been used arbitrarily, further jeopardizing the political instability of the state. For example, Emir Shaykh Nawaf al-Ahmed al-Jaber al-Sabah dissolved the Assembly in December 2020, convinced that the dissolution would have helped to rectify the political scene characterized by a lack of harmony and non-cooperation. Arguably, one of the leading causes of political instability lies in the emir. Firstly, the lack of cohesiveness in the parliament is his responsibility, considering that 15 PMs are hand-picked by the emir and possibly rooting for his interests. Secondly, systematically dissolving the parliament caused a substantial political turnout, meaning that the state’s policies, laws, and strategies must begin from zero every time the assembly changes. Thirdly, the emir willingly causes the parliament to be uncooperative. The government appoints a speaker of the Assembly who often stops the parliamentary dialogue, causing political impediments. Consequently, it is possible to say the emir benefits from an unsteady parliament, causing state-led projects and innovation to stop (possibly impacting the emir’s authority). In this prospect, Kuwait is trapped in a cycle characterized by the emir calling for new elections. To conclude, PMs often failed to advance motions to elect the prime minister inside the Assembly. This solution would help limit the emir’s influence in the political sphere. However, the option is halted by the parliament speaker on behalf of the head of state.


Overall, Kuwait has a unique political setting in the Gulf. In particular, Kuwaitis are proud of their parliamentary tradition, which includes the presence of democracy and the monarch, representing national unity. This sentiment often results in a clash between tradition and pluralism that reasonably represents the issues of politics. The path to a plural monarchy is difficult, considering the marginalization of minorities and a country far from being fully democratic.

Kuwait’s political and electoral system needs significant reforms to obtain a more competitive level of governance and enhance the functioning of the democracy.

The main reforms entail:

  • Amending the electoral law to include more residents in the election
  • Limiting the influence of the emir in politics
  • Employing efficient mechanisms to end corruption
  • Facilitating the process of voting registration
  • Defining clearly the separation between executive and legislative
  • Enhancing the political and social integration of minorities (Bidoon and Women)
  • Assigning an independent institution to supervise the elections
  • Creating a credible democracy with pluralism and political parties

Kuwait’s mixing of democratic institutions with the monarchy could be a positive example of governance in the Gulf. Nonetheless, the country’s relatively new constitution requires reforms to make the system of governance more efficient and pluralist.