KUWAIT (Reuters) - Kuwait's emir said on Friday he had ordered partial changes to the Gulf Arab state's electoral system to fix deficiencies ahead of expected elections, prompting opposition threats to boycott the vote.
Sheikh Sabah al-Ahmad al-Sabah dissolved parliament last week to pave the way for new election which many hoped would end a persistent political turmoil that had held up development projects in the major oil producer and U.S. ally.
The opposition, which won a parliamentary majority in a February poll, had said it feared authorities would try to push through new voting rules that could help pro-government candidates.
"I have directed the government to issue a draft law to make partial amendments to the electoral system, aimed at improving the voting mechanism to preserve national unity and to strengthen the practice of democracy," the ruler said in a speech aired on state television.
Kuwait's constitutional court had issued a ruling that allowed for any necessary changes to be made to the country's electoral system, he said. He did not elaborate on what the proposed changes should be.
Kuwaiti opposition politicians criticized the decision and said calls for boycotting the elections were growing.
"We have announced our position that if there was any meddling, there will be a boycott of the election, and what happened was meddling with the constitution of Kuwait," Hamad al-Matar, a former member of parliament, told Reuters after an opposition meeting.
"I believe there will be big reaction," he added.
Faisal al-Mislem, another former MP, said: "There is no need for issuing any decree and we refuse to participate in the elections."
Dhari Al-Rujaib, a youth activist, said there were calls being issued for protests against the emir's decision. "The street is not happy with the decision," he said.
Kuwait oil wealth and a generous welfare state have helped it avoid the "Arab Spring" protests that forced out leaders elsewhere in the region.
But there have been regular demonstrations in the country since last year, stemming from a struggle between the government dominated by the ruling family and mainly Islamist and tribal lawmakers in parliament.
Tensions increased as Kuwaitis waited for the emir to fix a date for the election, which must be held within 60 days from the date of parliament's dissolution.
Kuwaiti authorities arrested two opposition politicians on Thursday and interrogated a third after they made comments seen as criticizing the emir.
The former members of parliament spoke at an opposition-led rally of about 5,000 people on Monday where Kuwaitis later clashed with riot police close to parliament.
The arrests have prompted protests in Kuwait, including one late on Friday, where some 1,000 people had gathered in the center of the capital to demand the release of the detainees.
The events prompted the Al-Sabah family to issue a rare statement on Thursday calling for obedience to the emir.
The Al-Sabah dynasty has ruled Kuwait for more than 250 years. The 83-year-old emir has led the country since 2006.
Although Kuwait allows more freedom of speech than some of its fellow Gulf states, the emir is seen as untouchable and is referred to as "immune and inviolable" in the constitution.
Sheikh Sabah also warned in his speech On Friday that the recent political turmoil in Kuwait 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".
He said he had instructed the government to establish a national electoral committee and to organize election campaigns "to guarantee the integrity of the electoral process."
Reporting by Raissa Kasolowsky and Sami Aboudi; Editing by Michael Roddy and Pravin Char