Kuwait elections: Emir warns against boycott amid voter fatigue

National Assembly elections on Thursday feature 200 candidates competing for 50 seats

Kuwaitis cast their votes at a polling station during parliamentary elections in Kuwait last year. EPA
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Voters in Kuwait are preparing to go to the polls to choose their next parliament on Thursday, with the Emir warning the public against boycotting the elections amid fears of low turnout.

The National Assembly elections will mark the first time the country holds a vote during the final 10 days of Ramadan.

Only 200 candidates, including 46 members of the recently dissolved parliament and 20 from previous assemblies, are competing for the 50 National Assembly seats. Just 13 of the candidates are women.

The elections are being held after Kuwait’s Emir Sheikh Meshal dissolved parliament in February, when MPs refused to censure a politician who reportedly insulted the ruler.

With days to go before the election, Sheikh Meshal addressed the nation during an annual Ramadan speech, in which he urged citizens to “participate positively and actively” in the vote.

“Today I address you as a father’s letter to his children, wishing you, as we approach the 2024 National Assembly elections, to choose well those who represent you, and not to choose those whose goal is to achieve personal interest, create crises, or undermine constitutional constants,” Sheikh Meshal said in his address.

The Emir emphasised the need to fight “chaos” – a word he has used repeatedly in speeches since officially becoming Ruler, following the death of his half-brother Sheikh Nawaf.

Bader Al Saif, assistant professor of history at Kuwait University, said the speech focused on the two major themes of elections and national identity.

Sheikh Meshal's discussion of national identity and need to fight against “chaos” was a reference to previous attempts to deal with citizenship fraud in the country, Prof Al Saif said.

“The term used in the inaugural speech reappears in relation to past mishandling of the Kuwaiti nationality file and the damage it has wrought on identity deeming these violations an attack on the state,” he said in a post on X.

The government unveiled a hotline last month following the revocation of Kuwaiti citizenship from more than 30 people, who authorities accused of obtaining citizenship through fraudulent means or false statements.

The Ministry of Interior said authorities exercised the right to “withdraw citizenship if it was granted by fraud or based on false statements” and “the withdrawal of nationality if a person is convicted within 15 years of being granted Kuwaiti nationality for a crime involving moral turpitude and dishonesty”.

Kuwait has been gripped by domestic political disputes for years. The overhaul of Kuwait's welfare system has been a major issue of contention and has prevented the country from taking on debt. That has left it with little to pay bloated public sector salaries, despite generating wealth from its oil reserves.

Thursday’s vote will be the fourth election in four years, after previous parliaments were either dissolved by Emiri decrees or invalidated by the country’s Supreme Court, which reinstated a previous assembly only for the Emir to dissolve it by decree once again.

Kuwait’s parliament has been repeatedly dissolved by Emirs after failing to move forward amid tensions with the government, with the country’s Constitutional Court last year annulling a 2022 decree overturning another such annulment. Sheikh Nawaf then annulled that parliament again and held an election for a new parliament, which was dissolved by Sheikh Meshal in February.

“I plan to vote this time around because it is only my second time being eligible to vote and I believe my vote matters,” Kuwaiti citizen Ahmed Al Hamad told The National. "A lot of my friends from my generation said they won’t bother because the same MPs whose loyalties lie with their own tribes and families will make it to parliament and we expect them to clash yet again with the government."

Another Kuwaiti told The National he would did not plan to go to the polls because he did not feel his vote would break the impasse that has gripped Kuwaiti politics for the past decade.

“I believe my vote won’t make a difference, especially as my district has voted loyally to the same MP for the past three or four elections. These MPs claim to represent us Kuwaitis and vow to work with the government but every time they reach the assembly a new issue comes up and another impasse takes hold,” Ahmed Yousif said.

Clemens Chay, a research fellow and expert on Kuwait at the National University of Singapore's Middle East Institute, told The National he did not expect a low voter turnout on Thursday.

“The last parliamentary elections saw a respectable turnout, and with the optimism surrounding the appointment of Sheikh Dr Mohammed Sabah Al Salem as Prime Minister, there is renewed impetus for Kuwaitis to participate in the democratic process by casting their ballots," Mr Chay said. "While voter fatigue is understandable, the privileged position of electoral rights makes a boycott an improbable scenario."

The Kuwaiti parliament consists of 50 members who are elected by direct secret ballot. Electoral districts in Kuwait are divided into five areas, with each one electing 10 members. The number of people eligible to vote currently stands at 834,733, official statistics released by the government show.

Kuwait is the only Gulf Arab state to have an elected parliament with powers to hold the government to account through measures including votes of no confidence against cabinet ministers.

Updated: April 03, 2024, 10:55 AM