Kuwaitis vote in poll hit by opposition boycott, protests

KUWAIT Fri Nov 30, 2012 6:14pm EST

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KUWAIT (Reuters) - Kuwait holds a parliamentary election on Saturday overshadowed by an opposition boycott, protests over a change to the voting rules and a festering political crisis in the U.S.-allied oil producer.

The election will be the second this year in the Gulf Arab state, where a series of assemblies have 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.

Tens of thousands of Kuwaiti activists marched on Friday, urging people not to vote in protest against the change to electoral rules which they say will skew the outcome in favor of pro-government candidates.

Opposition figures have already said they will not stand because of the change, ordered in October by the emir, Sheikh Sabah al-Ahmad al-Sabah, whose family has ruled for 250 years and dominates the cabinet.

Past turnouts have been around 60-80 percent, but analysts said the numbers could be low this time, given the boycott and widespread exhaustion after the country's long string of elections.

"Voter apathy is to be expected, after all this is not only the second parliamentary election of 2012, but elections were also held in 1992, 1996, 1999, 2003, 2006, 2008, and 2009. Election fatigue is understandable," IHS Global Insight analyst Jamie Ingram wrote in a note.

Organisers of Friday's march said it was the largest in Kuwait's history and a sign of deep public discontent with changes to the voting system.

"The (opposition) movement in Kuwait is not like the Arab Spring movement. It is not against the ruler," former MP Mubarak al-Walaan said after the march. "It is about keeping to the constitution and the constitutional rules. The authorities must protect the constitution."

EMERGENCY POWERS

The emir used emergency powers to cut the number of votes per citizen to one from four, saying the change would fix a flawed system and maintain security and stability. He said his decree was constitutional.

The opposition, a disparate collection of Islamists, liberals and populist politicians, 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 opposition won around two-thirds of the 50-seat National Assembly in February and formed a bloc that put pressure on the government, forcing two ministers from office.

That parliament was dissolved after a June court ruling, in the latest stage in a political standoff which has stalled investment programs and frozen reforms in the country.

The government says opposition lawmakers used parliament to settle scores rather than helping pass laws needed for economic development. Opposition politicians accuse the government of mismanagement and have called for an elected cabinet.

Kuwait's parliament has legislative powers and the ability to question ministers. But the emir's Al-Sabah family holds important levers of power.

Voting takes place between 8am-8pm local time (0500-1700 GMT).

(Editing by Andrew Heavens)

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