KUWAIT (Reuters) - The opposition in Kuwait will press ahead with a march on Sunday to protest against new voting rules despite the government warning it will not tolerate unsanctioned demonstrations, an activist said.
The OPEC member and U.S. ally said on Saturday it had not authorised any protests and the prime minister warned police could use force if the authorities felt the Gulf Arab state was under serious threat.
Kuwait has avoided the kind of mass pro-democracy unrest seen in other Arab countries, but tensions have mounted between the elected parliament and the government.
Last month, an opposition-led demonstration by thousands ended in clashes between protesters and police in which at least 30 people were taken to hospital.
“We will continue. The opposition no longer cares about government statements,” an activist said, declining to be named.
Kuwait’s stock index fell to its lowest level since July 2004 on Sunday, according to Reuters data.
“Our duty is to maintain internal security and public order and to deter lawlessness in all of its forms,” Interior Minister Sheikh Ahmad al-Hamoud al-Sabah said on state news agency KUNA.
Opposition politicians, youth groups and their followers have taken part in recent demonstrations protesting against changes to an electoral law, which was announced last month by ruler Sheikh Sabah al-Ahmad al-Sabah.
Some opposition politicians say the changes are an attempt to give pro-government candidates an advantage in elections set for December 1, and have said they will boycott the poll.
“A COUP AGAINST THE CONSTITUTION”
The opposition has called the changes - which allow voters to choose only one candidate per electoral district - “a coup against the constitution”, saying the reform would prevent its candidates from winning the majority they won in the last vote.
Forging an electoral alliance, which depends on supporters of one candidate voting for another in exchange for reciprocal support, would become unfeasible under the new system, they say. Political parties are banned in Kuwait so lawmakers rely on being able to form blocs based on policy and family ties.
The government says the amendments were needed to preserve national unity.
Security forces used teargas, stun grenades and baton charges at protests last month, witnesses said.
Demonstrations about local issues occur frequently in Kuwait, which tolerates more public dissent than some of its Gulf neighbours. Violence had previously been very rare.
“Unauthorised demonstrations and protest marches do not count as legitimate means of reform and change,” KUNA quoted a statement from the Ministry of Islamic Affairs as saying. It said such protests violated Islamic law.
In central Kuwait City, the Interior Ministry had lined some streets along the planned march route with barricades on Sunday.
The Information Ministry had cleared its car park on the command of the National Guard, news service al-Rai said in an SMS alert, while a major shopping mall and meeting point along the march route was closing early.
An opposition bloc, made up of Islamist, liberal and tribal lawmakers, won a majority at the last elections in February. But that parliament was effectively dissolved by a court ruling in June which reinstated a more government-friendly assembly.
Kuwait has one of the most open political systems in the Gulf and is home to a parliament with legislative powers. But the 83-year-old emir has the final say in state affairs and picks the prime minister, who in turn selects a cabinet.
Editing by Andrew Osborn