Kuwait City: With the 2020 National Assembly elections are around the corner, four out of the five electoral districts held informal primary elections on Saturday. “Because tribes are very large, they usually hold informal primaries to filter the candidates before the general elections. If a tribe has two candidates, they have more chance of winning than if they had 10,” Bader Al Najjar, a political analyst, told Gulf News.
The third electoral district was the only district that did not witness an informal election because, “There is no large tribal presence in the district,” Al Najjar explained.
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Although the informal primary elections, otherwise known as tribal primaries, are illegal under Kuwaiti law, they are commonly held prior to a general election. While the exact date of the polls has not been announced, the elections are expected to be held on either November 28 or December 5.
A senior government official told Al Qabas, “Holding tribal primaries is illegal and unacceptable given the current health circumstances.”
The National Assembly passed a law in 1998 banning informal primary elections based on social affiliation. A new clause was added to Article 45 of the 1962 election law stating “It is illegal to organise or participate in primary elections, which take place informally before the set date of the general elections and is used to select one or more members of a certain class or sect.”
Since the Kuwaiti political scene lacks political parties, tribes organise informal elections in order to rally their constituents behind a certain parliamentary candidate, who is usually from the same tribe. According to Freedom House, when the candidate makes it to parliament, they usually use their public office to provide economic benefits to the members of their tribe.
History of informal primaries
This is not the first time the informal primaries are taking place, as they have been happening since 1971. “Informal elections have been happening for a very long time but we are seeing it more now because it is being discussed in the press and social media,” Al Najjar said.
In 2012, the election law was amended, reducing the number each voter has from four to one. Although the 2012 amendment, known locally as the “one-vote” decree, had a major effect on electoral habits, no significant changes were noticed in informal primary elections.
“No matter how many votes one has, informal primaries will always take place because they are based on blood rather than ideology and beliefs,” Al Najjar pointed out.
This year as well as in previous years, the government did not take any immediate steps to prevent or stop these informal elections from happening. In 2008, however, law enforcement raided multiple homes used as polling locations and arrested several people, including election candidates, for holding an informal primary. This came after the parliament was dissolved in May 2008 as a result of clashes between the legislative and executive branches.
The informal primaries were held despite the precautions put in place by the Ministry of Health, which forbids mass gatherings of more than 30 people. Based on images circulated on social media, the informal primaries drew massive crowds.
Al Najjar mentioned that voter turnout was around 80 per cent, which is a higher voter turnout than previous years.
Although voter turnout was high, women are not allowed to participate in informal primary elections. Based on National Assembly roll call votes, the vast majority of members that are endorsed in an informal primary election have voted against proposals expanding women’s rights, the most prominent votes being on granting women’s suffrage in 1999 and 2005.
With the 2020 National Assembly elections a few months away, informal primaries were bound to happen. The 2020 election will be the first general election to be held since 2016.
Given the current COVID-19 crisis, many people are wary that the pandemic will have an effect on the upcoming polls. One of the concerns is voter turnout, as it is unclear what the situation will look like in the next few months.
According to the Election Guide, during the 2016 elections, there were over 483,000 registered voters. According to Kuwaiti law, one must be over 21 years old and a registered voter in order to participate in a general election.
The parliament’s 50 members are elected by their constituents that are divided into five electoral districts, where each district elects 10 MPs.
The National Assembly is a unicameral legislature and is the main legislative power in Kuwait.