* Tens of thousands turn out for rally along seafront road
* Opposition politicians not running in election
* Protesters oppose changes to voting rules imposed by emir
* Government urges Kuwaitis to vote, not protest
By Sylvia Westall and Mahmoud Harby
KUWAIT, Nov 30 Tens of thousands of people
marched in Kuwait on Friday calling for a voter boycott, a day
before a parliamentary election that looks unlikely to defuse
tensions in the U.S.-allied, oil-producing Gulf country.
Organisers said the march was the largest ever in Kuwaiti
history and a message to the authorities of deep discontent with
changes to the voting system ordered by the ruling emir, Sheikh
Sabah al-Ahmad al-Sabah, six weeks before the election.
Opposition politicians are not standing in the election in
protest at the emir's decree, which changed voting rules in a
way they say will skew the outcome in favour of pro-government
candidates. Protesters said they would shun the ballot box.
Kuwait's disaffected say they seek democratic reform, not
revolution in the mould of Arab Spring revolts elsewhere. Sheikh
Sabah said the amendments to voting rules were made to preserve
national security and stability.
"The people want to bring down the decree!" demonstrators
chanted, in a variation on the slogans of uprisings that have
ousted autocratic rulers of four other Arab states.
"The message that the Kuwaiti people send ... is that they
refuse the changing of the election law by the authorities,"
said Ahmed al-Saadoun, a former parliament speaker and now
prominent opposition figure. "The number of people is a
reflection that this decree must be scrapped."
Former MP Jamaan al-Herbesh, an Islamist, said the march was
the largest of its kind in Kuwait's history. "The Kuwaiti people
refuse elections and refuse the pro-government parliament."
Marchers in the "Nation's Dignity" rally converged on the
main, palm tree-lined Gulf Coastal Road of Kuwait City and
proceeded toward the landmark Kuwait Towers.
Many men, women and children wore orange clothing, the
trademark colour of the boycott movement. In a carnival
atmosphere, they sang songs, carried balloons and carried
national flags and banners.
Police helicopters circled overhead and there was a light
police presence on the ground, but no sign of the armoured
trucks and riot forces deployed against previous marches.
"This (voting rule) change is against our rights,"
28-year-old social worker Abdul Mohsen said. "There is
corruption in the government. We want to fight corruption."
Bader al-Bader, an unemployed 33-year-old, said: "The
government does not believe in having the real democracy that
most people believe in nowadays. They believe Kuwait is just a
big bag of money and an oil rig."
Kuwait has the most open political system among the Gulf
Arab states and the government authorised Friday's march, hoping
to see the opposition let off steam before Saturday's vote.
"The people are not against the ruler, they are against
corruption and corrupt people, and people who think about
changing the constitution," former opposition MP Musallam
Parliament has legislative powers and the right to question
ministers. But the emir, head of the Al-Sabah family that has
ruled Kuwait for 250 years, appoints the prime minister, who
chooses the cabinet.
The emir used emergency powers in October 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.
Under the old system, candidates could call on supporters to
cast additional ballots for their allies. Supporters of that
system say such informal affiliations are crucial in a country
where political parties are banned.
The government says opposition lawmakers have 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
The Gulf Arab state has held four parliamentary elections
since 2006, after a series of assemblies collapsed because of
the power struggle between elected lawmakers and the government,
which has held up investment and economic reforms.
Opposition lawmakers 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.
"I am conscious that there are those who have called for a
boycott of the election," Information Minister Sheikh Mohammad
al-Mubarak al-Sabah said late on Thursday.
"I find this of great regret and I hope to the bottom of my
heart that the 400,000-plus Kuwaitis who have the ability to
cast their vote for their preferred candidate will exercise
their democratic right to do so."
With opposition lawmakers opting out, the incoming
parliament will include many political newcomers. A low turnout
would undermine parliament's legitimacy in the eyes of many.
"The emir changed the voting rules. We believe the change
has to come with the parliament. It is the parliament that
represents the people," said protester Hanouf, 40, a marketing
specialist who declined to give her second name.
She said current election candidates were mostly new and
unqualified with "no clue how to be in parliament or politics".
The opposition, a disparate collection of moderate
Islamists, Salafis and populist politicians, dominated
parliament until it was dissolved after a June court ruling.
The opposition has won the backing of youth groups who have
already helped organise protests against the voting rule change.
Kuwaitis often hold protest rallies outside parliament. But
recent marches in the streets beyond, which authorities said
were unlicensed, have been broken up by police using tear gas,
smoke bombs and baton charges.