Kuwait election
A health official checks the body temperature of candidates for the upcoming Kuwaiti parliamentary election as they arrive at the Department of Elections in Kuwait City on the first day of candidate registration, on October 26, 2020. Image Credit: Agencies

Kuwait City: With three weeks to go for the National Assembly (parliament) elections in Kuwait for the 16th legislature, candidates have ramped up campaigning to take their message to constituents with hopes of being elected.

In the past, candidates would usually set up their campaign headquarters, host a series of lectures and visit diwaniyas (reception areas) to speak with their constituents and understand their needs and demands. But it is different this year given the COVID-19 restrictions put in place to reduce the spread of the virus.

While candidates are facing several challenges due to the pandemic, voters are also adapting to this new reality as they try to listen to and engage with the candidates via mobile phone, TV or newspapers, instead of in person interactions.

“The nature of running for public office requires the candidate to meet with his or her constituents, organise public gatherings, visit voters at their homes and diwaniyas, but because of COVID-19 precautions and the government’s ban on maintaining campaign headquarters, none of the candidates have been able to do that,” Jalal Al Tabtabaee, campaign manager and brother of MP Omar Al Tabtabaee, who is running for elections for a second term, told Gulf News.

A campaign headquarter is an important factor for candidates as it is a place for the campaign staff to congregate, voters to speak directly with the candidate and candidates to hold lectures in front of a large audience.

No campaign HQs

While campaign headquarters have proven to be effective, they take up a large portion of the campaign budget as candidates spend huge sums on setting up a tent, installing a cooling system and providing food and beverages for a duration of approximately one month.

Although the money that would be spent on campaign headquarters has been saved this year, “candidates are still spending the same amount as they are required to pump more money into online advertisements,” Ali Khaja, a Kuwaiti journalist, told Gulf News.

Ban on diwaniyas

Another disadvantage this year is the ban on large gatherings in diwaniyas.

The diwaniya has played a significant role in the social and political fabric of Kuwait, as it is a hub for men to gather and discuss various topics in both a formal and informal manner. During election time, candidates visit diwaniyas to listen to what their constituents have to say, as well as a way to get their campaign message out.

Male-dominated space

While the ban on diwaniyas has a significant impact, many have argued that it has levelled the playing field between women and men as diwaniyas are usually male-dominated space that both women candidates and female voters have less access to compared to their male counterparts.

In addition to COVID-19 related restrictions, the government has banned putting up posters, banners and any promotional material without a licence.

Last week, Kuwait’s Municipality took down 150 political advertisements that were put up without a licence in Al Farwaniya Governorate.

Although campaign advertisements are banned without a licence, candidates have still been garnering physical exposure as advertisements on billboards are permitted. But that comes at a hefty price.

Power of TV appearance

Given the various physical restrictions imposed this year due to the pandemic, most candidates have focussed on their online presence.

During the election period, various news outlets roll out programmes and talk shows that are mainly dedicated to interviewing candidates and discussing election-related topics with political analysts and pundits.

While this practice does not differ from previous years, the main difference is the price that candidates have to pay for an interview. During the rest of the year, TV programmes do not charge for an interview, but the election period in Kuwait is a lucrative business.

According to Nasser Al Mujaibel, an assistant professor of media and mass communication at Kuwait University, the price of an interview ranges between 2,000 Kuwaiti dinars to around 30,000 Kuwaiti dinars, depending on the date of the interview (the closer to election date the more expensive) and the broadcasting platform, whether it’s on TV or the internet.

“In the past, elections would occur every one to two years but the last parliament lasted for four years, therefore TV programmes are charging more this year to cover their costs since they were used to making money every two years now it is every four years,” Khaja, the journalist, explained.

While TV programmes are considered traditional media, they have “simply become a studio for talk shows that are then put onto YouTube and shared on social media where they receive the majority of their viewership,” Khaja pointed out.

Stock Kuwait city skyline
While candidates are facing several challenges due to the pandemic, voters are also adapting to this new reality as they try to listen to and engage with the candidates via mobile phone, TV or newspapers, instead of in person interactions.

If a candidate wants to appear on TV, they have to pay for an interview, which both, Al Mujaibel and Khaja, pointed out is unfair since not all candidates have the means to pay the large fee.

While private news outlets sell interviews to the highest bidder, state media (like KTV) are off limits when it comes to political advertisements and interviews because they are required to adhere to specific advertising regulations.

“Personally, I would like state television to continue to represent the people, not a class of politicians. However, this is conditional on the effectiveness of the state media to exercise its role in educating and providing information to the public regarding domestic and international affairs,” Al Mujaibel told Gulf News.

'Distorted democracy'

Al Mujaibel added, “That said, this is not the case with government media, as they are neither active nor interacting, but rather passively silent. Therefore, the citizen has become hostage to the paid commercial media, which has produced data that does not accurately reflect reality, public opinion, political priorities and their decisions in the elections. So, we have a distorted and unreal democracy.”

New media, otherwise known as social media, has been widely praised for its accessibility and ability to reach the masses. Candidates have been utilising new media channels, from YouTube and Zoom to other social media platforms, more this year than any previous election cycle.

“While social media has become the main driver of this year’s media campaign, the audience’s interactions, or in this case their reactions, will have the greatest impact on candidates this year. This is probably why it wasn’t until recently that we began seeing all the media campaigns as candidates were unwilling to act in a way that could cause a negative impact,” Al Mujaibel said.

A common misconception is that the rise of social media in politics is an advantage when it comes to engaging with younger users but is a detriment to the older generation.

On the contrary, the older generation is “on their phones more than we expect and love social media, especially WhatsApp. The best thing about the older generation is that they have the patience to watch longer videos that have detail and ask a lot of questions,” Latifa Al Hajeri, the head of public relations for Alia Al Khaled’s (candidate running in the second electoral district) campaign, told Gulf News.

In addition, different segments of the population respond differently to each platform, with the older generation engaging on WhatsApp and TV broadcasts more, compared to the younger generation who prefer Twitter and Instagram.

Social media has been an important factor in this year’s elections, but to ensure personal contact many candidates are trying to reach their constituents through phone calls.

While social media has created a fair battlefield for all, the gender disparities come up again as “it’s more challenging to reach the older male demographic in these times due to the main method being direct personal phone calls. A female candidate has less access to those contacts than a male candidate would,” Al Hajeri pointed out.

Online traffic jams

While social media is an effective platform to reach a large portion of the population, it is also the main medium for most candidates this year, thus creating an overload of information for the viewer.

“The disadvantage that candidates and voters face is the fact that there is a large number of political messages, many of which are repeated, so the public loses the chance of being influenced,” Al Mujaibel pointed out.

With so much going on around the world currently, many candidates feel like they are “competing with major news events, such as the US elections, COVID-19 vaccine research, regional conflict in the Middle East, so we have to fight for air time in an already crowded news cycle,” Al Tabtabaee said.

Political advertising

As candidates are shifting their messaging online due to the COVID-19 restrictions, media and advertising companies have increased their prices as demand has gone up. According to a report by Al Qabas, advertising costs for an individual campaign have increased by 20 to 50 per cent.

According to a research paper published by Jasem Al Qaseer, there is no specific law on political advertising in Kuwait when it comes to funding. In other words, candidates do not have a limit on the maximum amount of advertisements in terms of airtime and size of print advertisements in newspapers.

Up until 14 years ago, there were only five newspapers in Kuwait that had a commercial licence. Then, when the 2006 press and publication law allowed for more licences to be awarded, there was an increase in the number of daily newspapers, thus creating more of a supply for candidates to pay for political advertising.

“Once they began awarding more licences, it gave a chance to new people to enter the scene, as well as different political ideologies as many different blocs started their own media publications,” Khaja said.

Media scene in Kuwait

Kuwait has one of the freest press in the region. It ranked 109 out of 180 in the 2002 World Press Freedom Index.

According Freedom House, Kuwait scores one out of four in terms of free and independent media.

In June 2015, the parliament approved Law No 63, known as the new cybercrime law, which contains 21 articles that is regarded as a way to, “regulate a number of online activities in Kuwait,” read a press released by several human rights organisations, including Reporters Without Borders (RSF).

Based on the 2006 press and publication law, articles 4, 6 and 7 of the 2015 law criminalises criticising the judicial system, harming Kuwait’s relations with other countries and undermining public morale or incitement leading to breach of public order.

In addition, Law No 19 of 2012, known as the National Unity law, criminalizes any act or statement that instigates hatred and discrimination towards any group in the community.