Kuwait opposition demand vote boycott on eve of election

KUWAIT Thu Nov 29, 2012 6:43pm EST

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KUWAIT (Reuters) - Activists and opposition figures will march in Kuwait on Friday to urge voters to boycott the next day's parliamentary election, dashing any hopes the poll could ease years of political tensions in the U.S. ally and major oil producer.

Opposition politicians, who have already said they will not stand, and campaigners called the rally to protest against a change in voting rules which they argue would skew the poll in favor of pro-government candidates.

The Gulf Arab state has already held four parliamentary votes since 2006, after a series of assemblies collapsed under the weight of a power struggle between elected MPs and the cabinet, appointed by the prime minister who is chosen by the emir.

Kuwait's ruler, Sheikh Sabah al-Ahmad al-Sabah, used emergency powers late October to cut the number of votes per citizen to one from four, saying the change would fix a flawed system and preserve security and stability.

The opposition, a disparate collection of Islamists, liberals and populist politicians whose bloc won a majority in the last election in February, argue the change hit their ability to form alliances.

In the past, candidates have called on their supporters to cast their additional ballots for allies. They say such informal affiliations are crucial in a country where political parties are banned.

The last parliament was dissolved in June after a court ruling.

The opposition has won the backing of youth groups who have already helped to organize a series of protests against the rule change. Previous demonstrations have drawn tens of thousands.

The "Nation's Dignity" march is scheduled to start at around 1200 GMT in various locations in Kuwait City and converge on Kuwait Towers, a major landmark on the northeastern coast of the capital. The government has authorized the march, in a move designed to ease tensions ahead of the poll.

Kuwait has the most open political system among the Gulf Arab states and tolerates more dissent.

Its citizens regularly hold protest rallies outside parliament. But recent marches in the streets beyond, which authorities said were unlicensed, have been broken up by police using teargas, smoke bombs and baton charges.

"We will not recognize the next government and its parliament," former opposition MP Musallam al-Barrak said on Thursday according to Kuwaiti newspaper al-Rai.

POWER STRUGGLE

Kuwait's parliament has legislative powers and the ability to question ministers. But the Al-Sabah family, which has ruled Kuwait for 250 years, holds important levers of power.

With the opposition MPs opting out, the incoming parliament will include many political newcomers, and it remains to be seen whether it will go along with the cabinet or challenge it.

An assembly elected on a low turnout may aggravate tensions on the street, diplomats and analysts say.

Opposition MPs won around two-thirds of the 50-seat National Assembly in February and formed a bloc which put pressure on the government, forcing two cabinet ministers out of office.

The power struggle has held up investment and economic reforms.

The government says opposition MPs are uncooperative and use the parliament to settle scores, rather than helping pass laws to help development. Opposition MPs accuse the government of mismanagement and have called for an elected cabinet.

(Editing by Andrew Heavens)

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