Strong turnout in 12th by-elections to Parliament

The 12th by-election to Kuwait’s National Assembly (Parliament) got underway on Saturday, 16 March with a total of 47 candidates, including five women, vying to occupy  two parliamentary seats from the second and third constituencies.

According to official figures, out of the there are 62,457 voters registered to cast their ballots in the second constituency and 96,528 voters in the third constituency. The country, with a little over 483,000 eligible voters,is divided into five electoral constituencies. The ten candidates receiving the highest number of votes from each constituency will represent their area in the 50-member parliament. The parliament also includes 15 ex-officio members, nominated by the prime-minister and who serve in the cabinet as ministers.

At the end of the 10-day registration period, following announcement of the 12th by-elections over a month ago,  five women and 56 men had jumped in to vie for the two seats to parliament. A total of 26 hopefuls, including one woman, signed up to contest the second constituency seat, while 35, including four women, put their names up from the third constituency.

However, by election day there were only 47 nominees left in the fray, including the initial five women candidates. A total of 18 candidates, including one woman, remained in the second constituency, while there were 29 men and four women in the third constituency.

Despite impressive gains accomplished by Kuwaiti women in several fields, their political representation in the 50-seat parliament is currently limited to  a single MP, Safa Al Hashem, who was the lone woman winner in the last elections.

The final candidate figures for the 12th by-elections was announced following the end of the period allocated for withdrawals and after ruling out of ineligible candidacies by the committee tasked with checking the fulfillment of requirements by candidates.  Article 84 of the Kuwaiti Constitution states, “If, for any reason, a seat in the National Assembly becomes vacant before the end of the term, the vacancy is filled by election within two months from the date on which the Assembly declares the vacancy. The mandate of the new member lasts until the end of that of his predecessor.”

Under Kuwait election laws, candidates competing for seats in parliament must be Kuwaitis and at least 30 years old. They must speak and write Arabic and must have an impeccable security record. The winners in the by-elections will serve until the end of the four-year term of the current parliament, which was elected in November 2016.

Though turnout was sluggish when polling stations opened at 8am, it gradually picked up pace and by evening a sizable number of eligible voters had arrived to cast their votes. Unless there are any unforeseen events, results are expected to be announced shortly after polling ends at 8pm.

The authorities have transformed 38 schools into ballot stations and medical teams have been stationed at the voting centers to heed to any health issues. Following his visit to polling stations, the Minister of Justice and Minister of State for National Assembly Affairs, Dr. Fahad Al-Afasi, said that everything was proceeding at ease and without any problems. He lauded judges and state officials for supervising the polling process.

The two seats were made vacant when sitting parliamentarians, Dr. Jam’an Al-Herbesh from the second constituency and Dr. Waleed Al-Tabtabai from the third constituency,  were stripped of their membership in the National Assembly by a court order. Expulsion of the parliamentarians came following a court sentencing them to jail for their role in the ‘storming’ of the parliament building in November 2011 at the end of a rally that called for the resignation or removal of then Prime Minister Sheikh Nasser Al Mohammad.

The two MPs, currently out of Kuwait, were among a group of 67 defendants that included 10 former and sitting lawmakers who stormed the parliament building in November 2011. The case against the two parliamentarians remained pending until December 2013 when the Criminal Court acquitted all suspects. However, the Court of Appeals in November 2017 rejected the ruling, and sentenced the defendants to jail terms ranging from one to nine years. Al Tabtabai received a jail-term of three years while Al Harbash was sentenced to six months. The verdict was confirmed by the Cassation Court, the highest court in the country, in May last year.

However, in October, the parliament after heated debate cited Article 16 of its bylaws  voted to retain parliamentary membership of the two lawmakers. The case was then referred to the Constitutional Court which said that Article 16 was unconstitutional, annulling the parliament’s decision and ordering the two lawmakers to serve their prison terms.

The judges argued that Article 16 made court rulings “hostage” to the will of the parliament and amounted to blatant interference in legal instances and a violation of the principle of separation of powers. The legislative branch cannot interfere in the work assigned by the Constitution to the judiciary or violate court rulings or undermine their right or independence, they said.

“Lawmakers are not above or beyond the law. Immunity is not a privilege, but is part of public interest. Lawmakers have no more rights than any other Kuwaiti to comply with the law. The law must take its natural course for all people without discrimination and the lawmakers’ immunity is not intended to confront decisions, nor is it a means of breaking the law with impunity,” they said.