Thousands of Kuwaitis protest electoral law move

KUWAIT Mon Aug 27, 2012 4:42pm EDT

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KUWAIT (Reuters) - Thousands of Kuwaitis took part in a rally late on Monday to protest any changes to the electoral law which they said could harm the prospects of opposition lawmakers in upcoming elections.

While the major oil exporter has not experienced the kind of mass popular uprisings that have swept the Arab region since last year, tensions have grown between the cabinet, opposition lawmakers and youth activists.

Around 3,000 people, mainly men in traditional Kuwaiti dress, gathered opposite parliament at Erada Square, the scene of several anti-government protests including one in November when protesters stormed the chamber.

At the height of frequent demonstrations last year, tens of thousands of youth activists, opposition MPs and their followers took part in such rallies in the regional U.S. ally.

The government asked the country's top court earlier this month to rule on a law that divides Kuwait into five constituencies, saying this was necessary to protect against legal challenges to future elections.

Some opposition politicians and activists have accused the government of wanting to alter electoral districts to prevent another opposition majority in the next parliamentary election.

Kuwait changed its election law in 2006, reducing the number of constituencies to five from 25 as part of efforts to reduce the possibility vote-buying and to cut tribal influence at the polls. Political parties are banned so lawmakers rely on forming blocs in parliament with tribal ties playing a major role.

The infighting has held up legislation and investment in the OPEC member state which has seen eight governments come and go in just six years.

"The government has been trying to break this opposition but it can't stop it now," economic consultant Anwar al-Sharhan said at the rally, where there was a minimal police presence.

"The government didn't have any other options so it went for the judicial system. This is the worst thing that could happen."

COURT RULING

Sharhan said Kuwaitis were tired of the political deadlock and felt the country's massive oil wealth was being squandered.

"We can't build a proper airport, we can't build a proper port, we can't even build proper roads," he said, as men sat under palm trees on carpets in the 45C (113 F) heat.

Speakers on Monday also criticized a court ruling from earlier this year that effectively dissolved a parliament dominated by opposition lawmakers and reinstated the previous, more government-friendly, assembly.

The reinstated parliament, originally elected in 2009, has been unable to meet to swear in the new government. Protesters held signs reading "Out with the 2009 assembly".

Around 4,000 Kuwaitis protested in June against the court ruling, calling it a coup against the constitution.

"We need more justice. Democracy is not complete in Kuwait," poet Faisal al-Hamlan said after addressing the audience.

Since they were elected in February, opposition lawmakers sought to grill senior cabinet members in parliament, forcing the resignation of two.

Kuwait, with its elected legislature and lively political debate, stands out in a region governed by autocrats who tolerate little dissent. However the al-Sabah family still holds a firm grip on state affairs.

The most important cabinet posts are held by al-Sabah family members and the 83-year-old emir, Sheikh Sabah al-Ahmad al-Sabah, who has the last say in politics, reserves the right to dissolve parliament at will.

He is widely expected to do this and call new elections by the end of the year in an attempt to break the deadlock.

(Editing by Michael Roddy)

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