Page last updated at 16:14 GMT, Monday, 18 May 2009 17:14 UK

Q&A: Kuwaiti elections

Dr. Aseel Al-Awadhii, a candidate in Kuwait's16 May parliamentary elections
Democratic Forum is believed to be backing liberal, Aseel al-Awadhi, to be the first woman MP

Kuwaiti voters head to the polls on 16 May in an early general election triggered by the cabinet's resignation following a row with parliament.

This is the third early election in less than three years and the third in which women are allowed to vote and stand for parliament.

What is the system of government?

Kuwait has been ruled by the Sabah family for the past 250 years. The emir, currently Sheikh Sabah al-Ahmed al-Jaber al-Sabah, has the last say in political matters. He has the power to override or dissolve parliament, and call elections.

Sabah family members do not hold elected seats in parliament but nonetheless occupy key cabinet posts such as those of prime minister, defence, interior and foreign affairs ministers.

The National Assembly, the first elected parliament in the Gulf, was established in 1963 and has 50 elected seats. In addition members of the cabinet serve as ex officio members. They only differ from elected ones in that they may not vote in no-confidence motions or serve on parliamentary committees.

Why are the elections being held early?

The National Assembly (Majlis al-Umma), considered to be one of the most powerful parliaments in the Gulf states, is often at odds with the cabinet and the last parliament was no exception.

No of voters and candidates by constituency
1st - 69,132 voters, 45 candidates (inc 3 women)
2nd - 43,473 voters, 45 candidates (inc 2 women)
3rd - 62,587 voters, 53 candidates (inc 8 women)
4th- 99,882 voters, 35 candidates (inc 3 women)
5th- 109,716 voters, 32 candidates (no women)

In March, three Islamist MPs from the Islamic Constitutional Movement (ICM) filed requests for the prime minister, Sheikh Nasser Mohammad al-Ahmed al-Jaber al-Sabah, a nephew of the emir, to face questioning by parliament over policy decisions and alleged financial irregularities at his office.

The question session was set for 18 March, but the cabinet resigned two days earlier as it has done when faced with this situation in the past. The emir consequently dissolved parliament and called early elections.

Since then, several former MPs have publicly stated that in-fighting in the ruling family was behind the requests for the prime minister to be questioned.

Who is eligible to vote?

All men and women over 21 are allowed to vote with the exception of male members of the police and armed forces, but if naturalised they must have been citizens for at least 20 years.

Some 384,790 Kuwaitis have registered to vote in this election, more than half of whom are women. Although expatriate workers in Kuwait outnumber the indigenous population by about 3 to 1, they are not eligible to vote.

How does the voting system work?

In 2006, Kuwait passed a new election law reducing the number of constituencies from 25 to five in an effort to discourage voting along tribal and sectarian lines and reduce vote-buying.

Each person may vote for up to four candidates in their constituency. The 10 candidates with the most votes in each of the five constituencies win a seat.

Voters on 16 May will choose from 210 candidates, 16 of whom are women. This is a drop from the 2008 election, when there were 380 candidates, of whom 28 were women.

Representatives are elected for a four-year term.

What are the issues?

The economy is expected to feature high on the candidates' agendas with many Kuwaitis clamouring for a solution to the financial crisis and a halt to rising prices.

The housing shortage, deficiencies in the health and education sectors and the fight against corruption are also key issues, but candidates are highlighting an end to the political chaos caused by the disputes between parliament and ministers.

Which are the political groups?

Political parties are banned, but a number of political "lists" have been allowed to function without restriction. Officially, candidates for the assembly nominate themselves and run as independents, but the following lists are putting up candidates:

Islamic Salafi Alliance (ISA) - a purist Sunni Muslim religious group affiliated to the Heritage Revival Society. It opposes votes for women on religious grounds. It was the largest list in the last assembly with four seats.

Islamic Constitutional Movement (ICM) - a Sunni Muslim group affiliated to the Muslim Brotherhood. The ICM is reported to believe in democracy provided that it does not conflict with Islamic teachings. It supports the right of women to vote.

National Islamic Alliance (NIA) - a Shiite Muslim group, with two seats in the last parliament. Ninety per cent of Kuwaitis are Muslims, with one third Shiites, the rest Sunnis.

Peace and Justice Alliance - a Shiite Muslim group led by Hassan Naseer, with one seat in the last parliament.

Popular Action Bloc - a liberal group which brings together former MPs headed by veteran former speaker Ahmad al-Saadoun, who is aiming for a record 10th straight election victory. The group focuses on issues such as housing and wages.

Kuwait Democratic Forum - a liberal group which is a strong advocate of political and economic reform.

Most of the Bedouin tribes have held primary elections to choose their candidates. The Awazem tribe did not and as a result their vote is expected to be split several ways.

Are any women likely to be elected?

Women have stood for parliament in both the elections since they were granted the right to vote, but none was elected. This time, however, Maasouma al-Mubarak, Kuwait's first female minister, is tipped to become the country's first female MP and analysts are optimistic about the chances of some of the other female candidates.

However, earlier in May, a Salafist leader called for a boycott of women candidates. ISA's Fuhayd al-Haylam said voting for women is a sin. Female activist and parliamentary candidate Fatima al-Abdeli has dismissed his remarks, saying they betrayed a state of intellectual bankruptcy.

Will the elections be fair?

The Kuwait Election Commission, which oversees the elections, has promised to ensure fair and free elections.

However, the pan-Arab election monitoring group, Elections Network in the Arab Region (ENAR), has already warned of widespread vote-buying ahead of the poll, despite an order from the interior minister for officials to "clamp down on all negative aspects that could tarnish the image of democracy in Kuwait".

The Kuwait Transparency Society and ENAR will both be monitoring the elections. The latter says it has not received official approval, but intends to deploy 30 monitors.

How has the campaign gone?

The election campaign appears to have run smoothly but three candidates were arrested on charges of undermining the authority of the emir and allegedly "criticizing" the ruling family.

Former MP Daifallah Buramia was detained following public speeches in which he said that the defence minister, a member of the ruling family, was "not fit" to become the next prime minister.

And fellow candidates Khalifa al-Khorafi and Khaled al-Tahus were arrested on similar charges.

All three were released on bail and may not actually face court proceedings, but commentator Saad Ben Tiflah wrote in the pan-Arab daily Al-Sharq al-Awsat that the arrests had damaged Kuwait's image.

BBC Monitoring selects and translates news from radio, television, press, news agencies and the internet from 150 countries in more than 70 languages. It is based in Caversham, UK, and has several bureaux abroad.

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