* Planned changes to election law sparked protest
* Stock market falls as much as 3.4 pct
* Emir has warned of threat to unity
By Ahmed Hagagy
KUWAIT, Oct 21 Police in Kuwait used teargas,
stun grenades and baton charges on Sunday to disperse tens of
thousands of demonstrators protesting against changes to the
electoral law which the opposition has called a constitutional
coup by the government.
Demonstrators gathered in various parts of the capital,
Kuwait City, to march towards the government's headquarters, but
riot police swiftly surrounded some groups and used teargas and
stun grenades to disperse them, Reuters witnesses said.
A medical source said at least 29 people had been admitted
to hospital, most of them suffering from teargas inhalation or
from baton bruises. At least 15 people, including two former MPs
and a reporter, were detained. An opposition activist estimated
that up to 50,000 people had gathered in different locations.
The opposition decided to take to the streets after the
government - which is dominated by the ruling Al-Sabah family -
announced last week it was calling elections for Dec. 1 and
would change the electoral law "to preserve national unity".
The announcement was the latest move in an intensifying
power struggle between the ruling establishment and parliament
that has seen eight governments come and go since the emir,
Sheikh Sabah al-Ahmad al-Sabah, came to power in 2006.
The 83-year-old dissolved parliament on Oct. 7. It was the
sixth time the oil-rich state and key U.S. ally had disbanded
its legislature since early 2006. Its oil wealth and a generous
welfare state have helped Kuwait avoid the kind of "Arab Spring"
protests that toppled leaders elsewhere in the region.
Before Sunday's protest got underway, the authorities had
promised to "decisively confront" demonstrators.
Witnesses said protesters who had initially been dispersed
later regrouped to form a crowd estimated at more than 20,000 at
a main road near Kuwait Towers, a seaside landmark in the Gulf
"The decree is void, void," some protesters chanted,
referring to the emir's order for a change to the election law.
Demonstrators said they had were motivated by a feeling of
"We are entering a dark tunnel," said Salem al-Ajmi, a
30-year-old man, after police blocked him from reaching Kuwait
The protest ended just before midnight after police told
demonstrators to leave or be evacuated by force, said news
Human rights lawyer Mohammed al-Humaidi said he estimated
the number of people injured was as high as 100 rather than 29
and said some of them were in a serious condition, the same
Kuwait has been convulsed by regular demonstrations since
last year, and the opposition - including Islamists, liberals
and tribal figures who won a majority in the 50-seat parliament
in the last election in February - have rejected the emir's
proposed changes and said they will boycott the vote.
The opposition has called the changes - which allow voters
to choose only one candidate per electoral district - "a coup
against the constitution", saying the reform would prevent its
candidates from winning the majority they won in the last vote.
Forging an electoral alliance, which depends on supporters
of one candidate voting for another in exchange for reciprocal
support, would become unfeasible under the new system, they say.
CRITICISM OF THE EMIR
Kuwait's opposition has been emboldened after Arab protests
toppled four heads of state.
Some have been demanding a constitutional state and for the
emir to resign but for governments to be formed by majority
groups in the 50-member assembly. Others have made more modest
demands for the government formed by the emir to be subject to
full parliamentary scrutiny.
The Al-Sabah dynasty has ruled Kuwait for more than 250
years and although Kuwait allows more freedom of speech than
some Gulf states, the emir is seen as untouchable and is
referred to as "immune and inviolable" in the constitution.
Kuwaiti authorities arrested two opposition politicians on
Thursday and interrogated a third after they made comments seen
as criticising the emir.
The events prompted the Al-Sabah family to issue a rare
statement on Thursday calling for obedience to the emir.
On Monday, police and protesters fought over a barricaded
street after 5,000 people demonstrated outside parliament.
Security forces arrested at least five people, including two
former members of parliament.
The deepening crisis has taken its toll on the stock market,
which dropped as much as 3.4 percent on Sunday, heading
for its biggest daily fall since mid-2009, when shares were hit
by the global financial crisis.
The crisis escalated in June this year when the top court
annulled the last election which had been held in February,
reinstating the previous, more government-friendly assembly.
Unlike other Gulf Arab states, Kuwait enjoys a more open
political system that allows some parliamentary scrutiny over
government decisions. But the emir still holds key levers of
power, including appointing the prime minister.
The turmoil has not only paralysed the political system but
also blocked major economic development plans.
Sheikh Sabah warned in a speech on Friday that the recent
political turmoil could lead to "strife that could be about to
erupt and destroy our unity, disfigure our identity and tear
apart our society into fragmented groups".