* Protesters held major boycott rally on eve of vote
* Election is the fifth since mid-2006
* Opposition MPs are refusing to stand
(Adds timing of result)
By Sylvia Westall
KUWAIT, Dec 1 Kuwaitis voted on Saturday in a
divisive parliamentary election held under new polling rules
that triggered an opposition boycott of the ballot and mass
The election is the second this year in the oil-rich Gulf
Arab state, where a series of assemblies have collapsed due to a
power struggle between elected MPs and the cabinet.
Tens of thousands marched on Friday in what organisers said
was the largest protest in Kuwaiti history, to urge people to
shun the ballot box in protest at a rule change they say will
skew the outcome in favour of pro-government candidates.
Kuwait's emir Sheikh Sabah al-Ahmad al-Sabah, whose family
has ruled for 250 years, used emergency powers in October to cut
the number of votes per citizen to one from four, saying his
decree would fix a flawed system and ensure national unity.
The opposition says the new one-vote system will prevent its
candidates winning the majority they had in the last vote.
In the past, its candidates have called on supporters to
cast their additional ballots for allies. They say such informal
affiliations are crucial due to a ban on political parties.
"The old system was unfair for people in some areas of
Kuwait," 28-year-old Dalal al-Aboud said at a polling station in
a suburb on the edge of Kuwait City, where there was a steady
trickle of voters.
"I think it will be better if we try this new method, then
we judge if it is fair or not."
Polls opened at 8 a.m. (0500 GMT). About 423,000 Kuwaitis
are eligible to cast ballots to choose the 50 members of
Officials in polling stations in several districts said
turnout appeared lighter than usual, but final figures were not
expected until early on Sunday, state television reported.
Opposition figures, who include Islamist, tribal and liberal
former lawmakers, have refused to stand.
Information Minister Sheikh Mohammad al-Mubarak al-Sabah
said there was a "significant and positive" voter turnout in the
second district, which comprises the capital and nearby areas.
The opposition tends to dominate voting in poorer districts
furthest from the capital.
Near a polling station in the south of the country, where
tribal candidates have polled strongly in the past, Ahmed
al-Azemi said he would not vote because his tribe was
"The Azemi family, we are against the election," he said.
"The new parliament will last only a month. A National Assembly
without the opposition is useless."
Around him older men sat drinking tea and arguing about the
boycott. Asked who had voted, three of the 10 raised their
hands, to shouts from the others.
"If the turnout is lower than 50 percent then you could say
the boycott is successful," said Ghanem al-Najjar, professor of
political science at Kuwait University.
Turnout in the past three elections was around 60 percent.
Kuwait, a U.S. ally, has the most open political system
among the Gulf Arab states with a parliament that has
legislative powers and the ability to scrutinize ministers.
But the emir's Al-Sabah family holds the main portfolios in
the cabinet and Sheikh Sabah has the final say in state matters.
"His highness the emir is responsible for the country and
knows best how to maintain its stability," Interior Minister
Sheikh Ahmad al-Hamoud al-Sabah said.
"Kuwait was, still is and will continue to be a beacon in
the Arab world when it comes to the transparency and
impartiality of elections," he said on state news agency KUNA.
FEMALE VOTERS AND CANDIDATES
University professor Alia Shuaib said women, who received
the right to vote in 2005, were still finding it an uplifting
experience to cast their ballots.
"I believe it is my duty as a woman and as a Kuwaiti
national to vote," she said.
"It is a pleasure to get up, dress, get my papers and vote.
It is breathtaking," the 45-year-old said.
"I believe every person should vote and put the right people
in parliament. We want educated people, the best."
There are 14 female candidates out of a total of 302. The
last parliament contained no female MPs.
The opposition won around two-thirds of the 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, the
latest stage in a standoff which has stalled investment and