It has been widely reported that in Kuwait’s election, “radicals” gained significantly and one “westernized” candidate narrowly missed becoming the first woman elected to the assembly. Less reported is what the electoral system is.
If it is the same as it was in 2003, the 50 seats are allocated in 25 districts by MNTV. [UPDATE: In a comment, Bancki notes a major change in magnitude; formula apparently remains MNTV, but in its "limited vote" variant.] That is, voters have [or, rather, had, in 2003] two votes, and the top two candidates win. There are no real parties,1 so it is a near-perfect example of personalistic voting and seat-allocation. A quick glance at the 2003 elections (Psephos) shows why this electoral system’s common name–block vote–is misleading.
When voters have M votes, where M is the district magnitude, and the winners will be the candidates with the M highest votes, it is an open question whether there exist “blocks” and whether, if they do exist, voters will vote as if they recognize those blocks as electorally relevant.
If there are blocks–parties, or just teams of local notables who campaign for votes in block–then the top M winners should have identical vote shares. So should the first M losers, the next M losers, etc., if there are multiple blocks contesting the seats.
For Kuwait, or any similar electoral system, we can get a window into the block vs. personal-voting tendencies of voters by simply calculating the ratios of candidates’ votes. Divide the second candidate’s votes by the first, the third by the second, etc.
When M=2, this will produce three ratios of interest: Second winner to first winner (SW:FW), first loser to second winner (FL:SW), and second loser to first loser (SL:FL).
If there is a block-voting tendency within the electorate, SW:FW and SL:FL should be close to 1.0. There is no expectation about FL:SW, because it depends not on intra-bloc cohesiveness but rather on inter-block competitiveness (i.e. the closer it is to 1.0 the more the district has close competition between two blocks–and, of course, the more any slackening of the leading block’s cohesiveness can contribute to the second block’s winning one of of the seats).
In Kuwait, 2003, the mean ratios across the 25 districts were:
Maybe some blockness there, but not much: If there were blocks, we might expect closer to 1.0 for at least SW:FW and maybe also SL:FL (if there are two blocs contesting the election).2 Standard deviations will also tell us something here. If .85 is a typical degree of achievable intrabloc unity, and the winners in each district tend to come close to that, then the standard deviation should be fairly small on SF:FW. On the other hand, if there is variation in inter-block competitiveness across districts, there would be a relatively high standard deviation on FL:SW, as some districts have two candidates well in the lead, while others have three or four bunched closely. The standard deviations are, in fact, .101, .126, and .191. So the top two in a district do indeed tend to be less variable in their ratios, which implies there might be some block tendency, after all, but just that it is hard to get much better than the .85 to .9 range.3
The first two losers’ ratio is more variable than even the FL:SW ratio, implying that it may be harder for the opposition to coordinate its votes–which is a pretty standard finding for this type of electoral system. That is, for electoral systems that are based solely on nominal and nontransferable votes.
Obviously, a leading block with two candidates relatively unchallenged does not have to worry about non-equalization between its two candidates, which might be caused by differential personal votes (or simple voter laziness). There seems little evidence for a notion that the leading block might put more (successful) effort into equalization when a third candidate in the district is more challenging,4 but the absence of party labels makes it impossible to know for sure!
Special note has to be made of the Al-Rumaithiah district, where the top two candidates had vote totals only seven votes apart! Then again, it is impossible to know if that is two candidates from one “block” that had voters generally willing to vote for both, or if it was two candidates from opposing blocks who had just enough personal support to squeak to victory over the third candidate, who missed one of the seats by 98 votes (out of over 11,000 cast). (The fourth candidate missed the second seat by a whopping 518 votes!)
At the opposite end of the spectrum was Al-Salmiah, where the first winner was far above any other candidate (SW:FW ratio of .68), but three other candidates were closely competitive for the second seat (their ratios to the candidate ahead were .86, .88, and .98).
In the absence of cohesive parties and strong party identification in the electorate, these MNTV systems can be rather unpredictable. They function as if they were pure personal-vote systems because, from the mechanical standpoint of how seats are allocated, they are. Blocks are irrelevant to actual seat allocation, and only through careful nomination and campaign strategy–and voter willingness to go along–can they function as block plurality.
What this might actually mean for Kuwaiti politics–or for 2008 (remember, the data I worked with are 2003)–I do not know. Did the “radicals” do relatively well because their ideological cohesiveness allowed them to place in the top two in 12 districts (they are reported to have won 24 seats)? Or did they have one popular candidate in almost every district whose popularity led some pro-government voters to vote for only one of the government candidates and give their second vote to a charismatic radical? Either outcome is plausible in such a system (though the first a good deal more so), and the final results will give us some clue. As for the “westernizers” they probably simply aren’t sufficiently organized to do well under this sort of system.
- “Political parties are banned in Kuwait, but various groupings operate as de facto parties,” as the AFP item linked in the first paragraph puts it. [↩]
- Medians are .858, .887, .871. [↩]
- Ten of the 25 districts have ratios of the top two candidates that are more than .9. [↩]
- If the top two were assumed to be from the same block and to have ratios closer to 1.0 when the first loser’s ratio was also close to 1.0, it would point in that direction. But that is very definitely not the case, because some of the highest and lowest ratios for the top two candidates occur in districts with FL:SW>.9. [↩]