World News

FACTBOX-Some facts about Kuwait's political system

KUWAIT (Reuters) - Kuwait votes in a parliamentary election on Saturday, two months after its ruler dissolved parliament to end a crisis with the government.

Following are some facts about the Gulf Arab state’s political system:

* Kuwait gained independence from Britain in 1961 and its first fully-elected parliament was voted in 1963.

* Kuwait has a 50-seat parliament with a history of challenging the government, unusual for a region dominated by families. Deputies have to approve the state budget and all major laws. They often exercise their right to question ministers, sometimes prompting them to resign under pressure.

* Kuwait’s ruler, Emir Sheikh Sabah al-Ahmad al-Sabah, has the last say in policy. He can dissolve the assembly and appoint new governments. Key cabinet portfolios such as defense, interior and foreign affairs are held by members of the ruling al-Sabah family, none of whom have ever held a parliament seat.

* The emir or his predecessors have dissolved parliament five times since its establishment -- in 2008, 2006, 1999, 1986 and 1976. According to Kuwaiti law, elections must be held within 60 days of the assembly being dissolved, but rulers have ignored this rule before, suspending the assembly for five years from 1976 and six years from 1986.

* Kuwait does not allow political parties but tolerates informal political groups. These include the hard-line Islamist Salafist movement, the liberal Democratic Forum Bloc, the Shi’ite Muslim-led National Islamic Coalition, the Islamist Ummah Party, the Islamic Constitutional Movement and the liberal Popular Action Bloc. Because of changes in the electoral law which come into effect for the first time this year, it was not clear which of the groups would do well in the vote.

* Parliament passed a law in May 2005 giving women the right to vote and run in elections for the National Assembly. No woman was elected in the last vote in 2006.

* The current emir is the 15th ruler in a dynasty which has ruled Kuwait for 250 years since part of the Anaiza tribe, to which the al-Sabah belong, migrated from the Arabian hinterland.

* Since the U.S.-led invasion of neighboring Iraq in 2003 and U.S. calls for change in the Middle East, the ruling family has come under pressure from both Islamists and pro-Western liberals to loosen its grip on government and share power.

* In July 2003, the emir issued a landmark decree separating the post of prime minister from the crown prince for the first time since Kuwait’s independence.

* Kuwait passed a new election law in 2006 cutting the number of constituencies from 25 to five in the hope that it would increase competition and reduce vote-buying that has long marred polls.

* Some 361,685 Kuwaitis, over half of them women, are eligible to vote in the 2008 election. Members of the security forces are not allowed to vote, nor are expatriates, who form almost 2.2 million of Kuwait’s 3.2 million population.

* Over 270 candidates, including 27 women, are running in Saturday’s election.

* Changes of the oil minister usually do not have an impact on the energy policy of the major OPEC producer.

Reporting by Ulf Laessing, Editing by Lin Noueihed