Kuwait opposition urges vote boycott on eve of election

KUWAIT Fri Nov 30, 2012 10:59am GMT

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KUWAIT (Reuters) - Opposition supporters and political activists will march in Kuwait on Friday to urge a voter boycott, one day ahead of a parliamentary election that looks unlikely to ease tensions in the U.S. ally and oil producer.

Campaigners and opposition politicians, who have already said they will not stand, called the rally to protest against a change in voting rules which they argue would skew the poll in favour of pro-government candidates.

The Gulf Arab state has held four parliamentary elections since 2006, after a series of assemblies collapsed due to a power struggle between elected lawmakers and a government that is appointed by a prime minister chosen by the emir.

Ruler Sheikh Sabah al-Ahmad al-Sabah used emergency powers in October to cut the number of votes per citizen to one from four, saying the change would fix a flawed system and preserve security and stability.

In the past, candidates called on supporters to cast additional ballots for their allies. Supporters of that system say such informal affiliations are crucial in a country where political parties are banned.

"I am conscious that there are those who have called for a boycott of the election," Information Minister Sheikh Mohammad al-Mubarak al-Sabah said late on Thursday, state news agency KUNA reported.

"I find this of great regret and I hope to the bottom of my heart that the 400,000-plus Kuwaitis who have the ability to cast their vote for their preferred candidate will exercise their democratic right to do so."

The opposition, a disparate collection of moderate Islamists, Salafis and populist politicians whose bloc won a majority in the last election in February, dominated parliament until it was dissolved after a June court ruling.

Protesters say they seek reform, not revolution in the mould of the Arab Spring revolts which toppled several leaders in the region last year.

The opposition has won the backing of youth groups who have already helped organise protests against the voting rule change. Previous demonstrations have drawn tens of thousands.

POWER STRUGGLE

The "Nation's Dignity" march is scheduled to start at around 3 p.m. (1200 GMT) in various locations in Kuwait City and then converge on Kuwait Towers, a landmark on the northeastern coast of the capital.

Kuwait has the most open political system among the Gulf Arab states and the government authorised the march, aiming to ease tensions ahead of the poll.

Kuwaitis often hold protest rallies outside parliament. But recent marches in the streets beyond, which authorities said were unlicensed, were broken up by police using teargas, smoke bombs and baton charges.

Kuwait's parliament has legislative powers and the ability to question ministers. But the Al-Sabah family, which has ruled Kuwait for 250 years, holds important levers of power.

With opposition lawmakers opting out, the incoming parliament will include many political newcomers, and it remains to be seen whether the assembly will have a less confrontational relationship with the government than before.

A low turnout would undermine parliament's legitimacy in the eyes of many Kuwaitis and could aggravate tensions on the street, diplomats and analysts say.

Opposition lawmakers won around two-thirds of the 50-seat National Assembly in February and formed a bloc which put pressure on the government, forcing two ministers out of office. The power struggle has held up investment and economic reforms.

The government says opposition lawmakers use the parliament to settle scores, rather than helping pass laws needed for economic development. Opposition politicians accuse the government of mismanagement and have called for an elected cabinet.

(Editing by Robin Pomeroy)

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