Kuwait to allow protest march on eve of election - PM

KUWAIT Tue Nov 27, 2012 6:48am GMT

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KUWAIT (Reuters) - Authorities will allow a protest march to go ahead the day before the December 1 parliamentary election in Kuwait, the Gulf Arab state's prime minister said in a move designed to ease tensions ahead of the poll.

Thousands of people have staged regular demonstrations since late October against a decree issued by Kuwait's ruler, Sheikh Sabah al-Ahmad al-Sabah, which reduced the number of votes allowed per citizen to one from four.

The opposition movement, which includes youth groups and former members of parliament, has called for a boycott of the election in the U.S.-allied major oil producer over the changes.

They say the amendments are an attempt to skew the elections in favour of pro-government candidates. Protesters say they seek reform, not an Arab Spring-style revolution like those that have ousted several Arab rulers since early last year.

The emir says the voting system is flawed and that the changes are constitutional and needed for the sake of Kuwait's "security and stability".

Prime Minister Sheikh Jaber al-Mubarak al-Sabah said "the organisers got a license from the concerned security services, so the government had nothing against the march," state news agency KUNA reported late on Monday.

Kuwait allows the most dissent among the Gulf Arab states and its citizens often hold rallies in a designated area outside parliament.

But recent unlicensed protest marches in the streets beyond have been broken up by police using teargas and smoke bombs.

Authorities are keen to prevent the kind of unrest Kuwait experienced on October 21, when thousands of demonstrators attempted to reach government headquarters in the largest protest march and were dispersed by police. At least 29 people were injured during that march, according to a medical source.

CORRUPTION, STALLED DEVELOPMENT

Under the new rules, each voter chooses only one candidate instead of four, a move the parliamentary opposition says will prevent its candidates winning the majority they had in the last election.

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. Such allegiances are important because Kuwait bans political parties, opposition politicians say.

Apart from protesting against the new voting rules, activists have rallied against wider issues such as corruption, the accountability of government ministers and elected officials as well as a lack of infrastructure development.

A long-running row between the government and parliament has stalled implementation of major parts of a 30 billion dinar ($107 billion) development plan, including large infrastructure projects.

The December 1 poll will be the fifth since mid-2006.

"The coming government will include decision makers and bold politicians to scale up the combat against corruption," Sheikh Jaber said, according to KUNA.

"The coming stage will see a quantum leap in economic development and the stage set for implementing mega projects, some of which have already been approved," he said.

The 50-member parliament has legislative powers and the right to summon ministers for questioning. But the emir has the final say in state affairs and can veto laws and dissolve the assembly.

Opposition MPs - whose demands have included an elected cabinet including the prime minister, with at least some top posts held by people other than relatives of the emir - held some 35 seats in the 50-seat parliament elected in February 2012.

The opposition bloc put pressure on government ministers, leading to the resignation of two. The parliament was dissolved by a court ruling in June.

Sheikh Jaber said the last parliament "failed to encourage the government to adopt positive steps ... contrary to the spirit of the constitution which favours cooperation between the legislative and executive authorities," KUNA reported.

(Editing by Mohammad Zargham)

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