Kuwait has just held its 11th parliamentary election since independence in 1961. Though Kuwait is a monarchy, its parliamentary history has not been placid, and the election campaign reflected ongoing tensions between the royal family and segments of the electorate.
Originally scheduled for October 2007, the election was brought forward to break a deadlock between the parliament and the government over the number of electoral districts in the country. There are 25 constituencies nationwide, but reformers have long argued that a smaller number of voting districts -- each with a larger number of voters -- would be less susceptible to manipulation by the political elite.
The 29 members of parliament who support a reduced number of constituencies were unable to agree with the government on a new number. As a result, the issue became the focus of a vigorous campaign by discontented Kuwaitis, who gathered in front of the National Assembly building and in universities to voice their criticism.
In response, the government moved the redistricting issue from parliament to the constitutional court -- an attempt, reformers argued, to hold back change. When three members of parliament sought to question the prime minister -- their right, under the Kuwaiti Constitution -- the parliament was dissolved and elections called.
The rules of political life in Kuwait have been worked out over the 300 years since this small area emerged as a self-contained polity. The royal family is empowered to administer the country, but does so through consultation with different sectors, like tribal leaders or merchant groups.
When independence came in 1961, these rules were codified in a Constitution. Compared to other Gulf monarchies, the Kuwaiti royal family has limited powers, though constitutional rules have frequently been ignored -- charges of vote-rigging marred the 1967 election, and the parliament has been dissolved several times during the country's history.
Nevertheless, since Kuwait was liberated from Iraqi occupation in August 1990, the parliament has gained both stability and respect. The dissolutions of parliament in 1999 and this year were carried out according to the law, and elections were called in a timely fashion.
Parliament retains the right to interrogate Cabinet members, including the prime minister, on financial and administrative questions, and has frequently passed motions of no confidence in the government. More recently, with the death last December of Emir Sheikh Jabir al-Ahmad, parliamentary approval played a key role in resolving succession debates among factions of the royal family.
Overall, Kuwait has always had a lively political life, with more freedom of expression and less political repression than is common in neighboring countries. Political violence has been rare. Though political parties have not been legalized, they are nonetheless active in parliament and public life. Kuwaiti life reflects the many and varied political trends throughout the Arab world, and the country's open society and economic opportunities have made it a powerful magnet and regional safety valve since the 1950s.
In the last election, Kuwaiti women participated in choosing the parliament for the first time. Though women have long been active in Kuwaiti public life, they were enfranchised only last year, after a long and difficult campaign, when they gained suffrage by a parliamentary vote, though they accounted for just 28 of the 249 candidates.