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 pro-government candidates.
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 allies.
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 agency KUNA.
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)