Middle East

Q&A: Kuwait parliamentary election

ballots counted in December 2012 election
Image caption Polls take place just seven months after the previous election

Kuwaitis vote for a new parliament on Saturday - the third in 17 months - after the most recent National Assembly was dissolved in June.

Less than six months after it was elected, the country's top court found that the electoral commission overseeing the polls was illegitimate. However, the court upheld controversial amendments to the electoral law, which reduced the number of candidates each Kuwaiti can vote for from four to one. The changes sparked violent street protests and prompted the opposition's boycott of the polls in December 2012, as well as of the elections this year.

None of the parliaments elected in Kuwait since 2003 have managed to complete their four-year tenure, and there is a growing call from Kuwaiti citizens for more political stability so that challenges facing the country can be addressed more effectively.

How powerful is the Kuwaiti parliament?

Image caption Most candidates focus on local issues such as employment, housing, health care and education

Kuwait is a constitutional monarchy and has the oldest directly-elected parliament among the Arab Gulf states, being first elected in 1963. It is also among the most powerful.

In addition to law-making powers, the unicameral National Assembly can hold the government to account. Even though the prime minister and the government are appointed by the emir, parliament has the power to veto government decisions and even dismiss the prime minister or any minister.

The emir, however, has the final say in policy decisions.

The Kuwaiti National Assembly is made of 50 elected MPs, who represent five 10-seat constituencies. Alongside them sit 15 unelected cabinet members, who enjoy the same voting rights as other members of parliament. Under Kuwait's constitution, the government has to include at least one elected MP.

Does parliament normally get on with the government?

There has frequently been friction between the National Assembly and the government, resulting in parliament being suspended several times.

The assembly elected in February 2012 was dominated by opposition figures and was in confrontation with the government on several occasions. The annulment of those elections and subsequent changes to the election law put Kuwait's relatively liberal political credentials in doubt.

The assembly chosen under the new "one person, one vote" system in December 2012 was made up entirely of loyalist MPs after a widespread opposition boycott .

Who are the candidates?

Over 300 candidates, including eight women, are running in the election. Political parties are not allowed in Kuwait, so candidates contesting parliamentary elections nominate themselves and run as independents.

Most of the candidates represent various tribes, liberals from the National Democratic Alliance, and Shia and hardline Sunni Salafist groups.

What are the key issues?

The fact that Kuwait has had six National Assemblies since 2003 has contributed to a growing number of challenges facing in the country, including sluggish infrastructure development and slow economic reforms. This has been reflected in campaigning, with most candidates focusing on local issues such as employment, housing, health care and education.

Many candidates have criticised the Kuwaiti government's offer of $4bn (£2.6bn) in aid to Egypt, saying that the money would be better spent on solving the housing crisis in the country.

Roughly two-thirds of Kuwait's population are foreigners, mostly low-paid workers from Asia, and their treatment is a sensitive issue. In one opinion poll, almost half of respondents said the biggest change they would like to see after the elections is more leniency towards expatriates. Thousands of them have recently been deported from Kuwait due to problems with their visas or residency papers, or as a penalty for traffic offences.

What is the opposition saying?

Most opposition figures are boycotting the poll in protest against changes introduced to the electoral system in October 2012. Prior to them, each Kuwaiti voted for four candidates in their constituency, but the emir reduced the number to one, arguing that this brings Kuwait into line with other countries.

His opponents, however, allege that the new system allows the government to manipulate election results.

Compared to the parliamentary election in December 2012, the opposition is not as united in boycotting the polls this year. Many tribes and liberal candidates said they would participate this time.

There have also been allegations of vote-buying in the run-up to the polls, and more than 50 people have been arrested on these charges.

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