KUWAIT Tens of thousands of Kuwaitis packed into a square opposite parliament on Sunday in a peaceful opposition-led rally against new voting rules.
Recent demonstrations against the electoral changes, ordered by Kuwait's ruler last month ahead of a poll on December 1, have led to clashes between protesters and police as marches spread out of the areas usually designated for rallies.
Sheikh Sabah al-Ahmad al-Sabah, the 83-year-old emir whose family has ruled Kuwait for more than 250 years, has said the new rules are aimed at preserving national unity. He warned last week there will be no leniency for threats to national security.
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.
"The government just wants a parliament that does everything they want," said computer security manager Abu Abdullah. "They are playing with our constitution."
Fatima al-Badah, an educational supervisor, said: "The decision (to change voting rules) came from the emir. It is more accurate if this issue is discussed in parliament. Under the new system it is easier to buy votes."
In a conscious echo of Arab Spring slogans used in other parts of the Arab world, some protesters chanted "The people want to bring down the decree (on voting)."
Protests have toppled four Arab leaders since last year. 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.
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 favor 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.
Tensions over the proposed changes have been building. Police used teargas and smoke bombs to disperse thousands of Kuwaitis protesting beside a motorway on November 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. Currently the emir picks the prime minister, can veto legislation and has the right to dissolve parliament.
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 Stephen Powell)