Electoral reform on minority candidates

By Raymond Barrett
Published May 16th 2006 in Kuwait Times
KUWAIT: Kuwait's political firmament is dominated by a small number of groups-Islamists, tribes, merchants, liberals and government supporters. All of these factions know that this government's redistricting proposal will change the face of parliamentary politics in Kuwait forever. As such, they have made either their opposition or support of the plan well known.

Previous elections

A study of the Umm Al-Haiman electoral district in the south of Kuwait in the 1992 elections by Mary Ann Tetreault in her book 'Stories of Democracy: Politics and Society in Contemporary Kuwait' reveals how one of these groups dominated the election in that district: a situation the government is trying to counter with its current proposal.

Seven candidates ran receiving the following number of votes: 525, 522, 22, 10, 6, 6, 2. The two elected candidates both came for the same tribe, Al-Azmi. Tetreault argues that the size of the constituencies per se is not the issue, but the concentration of similar voters in certain areas. In Umm Al-Haiman, only members of a certain tribe had any chance of being elected. Thus, these established groups are right to fear that their influence may be reduced by the government's new move.

Alternative candidates

Lost in the maelstrom of debate generated by these more established entities is a different question: Will the changes provide a chance for alternative candidates to establish a real political presence in the country and possibly get a seat in parliament.

An alternative candidate is one that runs on a niche platform. Candidates falling into this category would be single issue candidates-for instance, those running an environmental platform-or women not associated with a dominant political group, gay-rights campaigners, people expounding political philosophies such as socialism or Marxism, or Kuwaitis in favour of granting citizenship to expatriates en masse.

In such a case, it would be the electoral system that is used as much as the issues that would determine whether such candidates could win a seat in parliament. Both the USA and the UK employ electoral systems that discriminate against alternative candidates and many Americans and British citizens are unhappy with the type of democratic systems their nations employ, because it does not give a voice to candidates outside of the established parties in each country.

Electoral analysts believe it is the 'winner-takes-all' (US) and the 'first-past-the-post' (UK) systems that lead to a situation where voters are left with only two or three political parties to choose from, despite both nations having rich intellectual and political traditions. As such, an alternative voting system such as Proportional Representation (PR) is often proposed as an alternative.

Proportional Representation

Douglas J. Amy - a Massachusetts-based Professor of Political Science at Mount Holyoke College describes Proportional Representation in the following terms. "PR systems...divide up the seats...according to the proportion of votes received by the various parties or groups running candidates. Thus if the candidates of a party win 40 per cent of the vote in a 10 member district, they receive four of the ten seats - or 40 per cent of the seats. If another party wins 20 per cent of the vote, they get two seats, and so on."

He adds that the aim of such a system is to "to ensure that parties are represented proportionally in the legislature. They include party list systems, mixed-member proportional, and the single transferable vote." However, for PR to be work properly in Kuwait, political parties (which are currently outlawed) would need to be introduced.

A fair vote?

Jack Santucci, a research associate with FairVote - Center for Voting and Democracy, a US-based NGO who self-proclaimed aim is to "promote voter turnout, fair representation, inclusive policy and meaningful choices", commented recently on how the current changes to the voting system in Kuwait might affect alternative candidates standing for election.

"Kuwait uses winner-take-all, at-large elections (block vote) in 25 two-seat districts. Under proportional voting, that should have a positive effect on the electability of "alternative candidates". Higher district magnitude (bigger districts) generally means a lower threshold of exclusion, which means it should be easier for minorities to elect candidates," he said.

However, he added that unless Kuwait changes its actual voting system rather than just the size of the electoral districts, alternative candidates would still have little chance of success. "But the block voting system means little should change - i.e. the threshold of exclusion remains 50% + 1 vote. So, for now, I would say there would be no...effect," However, he did point out the importance of other factors such as cultural and the extent to which minority populations are dispersed among the population as factors that affect the outcome of elections.

A change is coming in the way Kuwait elects its representatives to the National Assembly-that much is for sure-but whether there will be a corresponding change in the actual types of people elected to parliament, is a different matter altogether.