KUWAIT Nov 11 Tens of thousands of Kuwaitis
packed into a square opposite parliament on Sunday in a peaceful
opposition-led rally against new voting rules ahead of elections
on Dec. 1.
Recent demonstrations against the electoral changes, ordered
by Kuwait's ruler last month, have led to clashes between
protesters and police as marches spread out of the areas usually
designated for rallies.
Hundreds of Kuwaiti men wearing white traditional robes
streamed into the square where opposition leaders gave speeches
from a stage to protesters, many sitting on carpets drinking tea
as others sang Kuwaiti songs.
Hundreds of women dressed in black traditional robes sat in
a separate area of the audience. Helicopters circled overhead
and police lined the streets around the square which were
clogged with traffic.
Although oil-rich Kuwait, with its generous welfare state,
has been spared the kind of mass uprising seen in Arab Spring
movements elsewhere, tensions have intensified between the
government and opposition politicians.
Made up of Islamist, tribal and liberal lawmakers, as well
as youth groups, the opposition says the new voting rules are an
attempt to skew the parliamentary election in favour of
Opposition politicians held a majority in the last
parliament which was fraught with legislative deadlock and
dissolved by a court ruling in June.
Under the new rules, each voter chooses only one candidate
instead of four, a move the opposition says will prevent its
candidates winning the majority they had in the last vote.
They say the four vote system better enabled candidates to
form political allegiances during the election campaign by
recommending supporters cast additional ballots for their
Sheikh Sabah al-Ahmad al-Sabah, the 83-year-old emir who
has led the country since 2006, has said the new rules are aimed
at preserving national unity and warned last week there will be
no leniency for threats to national security.
Although Kuwait, an OPEC member and United States ally,
allows more dissent than most other Gulf states, in recent weeks
it has begun to emphasise the limits of its tolerance and has
arrested small groups of people at the protests.
Police used teargas and smoke bombs to disperse thousands of
Kuwaitis protesting beside a motorway on Nov. 4. In October, two
demonstrations were also disbanded by police.
"We have to be aware of the growing dangers in the region
and must be aware that this shrapnel is falling around us,"
Sheikh Sabah said on Saturday in a speech marking the 50th
anniversary of Kuwait's constitution, published by state news
He said Kuwaitis should cast their ballot as a "national
duty" and called for unity.
There are 397 candidates for the 50-seat parliament
according to the election affairs directorate, which closed
registrations on Friday.
Kuwait's opposition has urged a boycott of the election to
select the country's fifth parliament in six years.
Some protesters are also calling for a government that is
elected rather than appointed by the Al-Sabah family, which has
ruled Kuwait for more than 250 years.
They also want to see the creation of political parties,
which are currently banned, meaning lawmakers form blocs based
on policy and family ties.
(Editing by Sophie Hares)