Kuwaitis are to elect a new parliament Saturday, for
the second time in 2012, amid opposition calls for a boycott and
warnings by the emir of an Arab Spring-style instability in the Gulf
The new 50-member National Assembly will, in fact, be the oil-rich emirate's sixth since 2006. Some 279 candidates, including 23 ex-lawmakers and 14 women, are running.
But the vote comes at a time of unusual political turmoil in the wealthy, oil-exporting nation.
In October Kuwait's Emir Sabah al-Ahmed al-Sabah dissolved the opposition-controlled parliament, only elected in February, after the Supreme Court invalidated it.
The opposition - comprising Islamists, nationalists and liberals - has staged mass protests in recent weeks against a royal decree amending the electoral law.
Under that change, each voter chooses one candidate instead of four.
The opposition says the new rule discriminates against them because under the old system they could form alliances during the campaign, which was crucial because political parties are banned.
Al-Sabah has countered the change is constitutional and aims at safeguarding national unity and security.
"We are duty-bound to protect our country from dangers surrounding us and the earthquakes hitting the Arab world," al-Sabah said last week, apparently referring to the Arab Spring revolts of 2011.
The opposition, in turn, claims the amendment will encourage vote-buying and produce a rubber-stamp parliament.
Police broke up recent opposition rallies after some opposition leaders made critical remarks of the emir - a long-held taboo in Kuwait's politics.
At a rally on October 15 outside parliament, prominent opposition politician Musallam al-Barrak said, addressing the emir: "We will not allow you, your highness, to take Kuwait into the abyss of autocracy.
"We no longer fear your prisons and your batons."
Al-Barrak and some other opposition figures were briefly detained on charges of insulting the emir.
The opposition has said it will not recognize the new parliament, calling it "a sham."
While Kuwait's political turmoil seems inspired by popular uprisings that have toppled rulers in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya and Yemen, the Kuwaiti opposition has frequently said it seeks wider reforms, including an elected government, not regime change.
Kuwait was the first country in the Gulf region to establish an elected parliament in 1963.
The country has often been gripped by wrangling between the elected parliament and the government, which is appointed by the emir who retains effective power.
The government has been replaced nine times in Kuwait since 2006 when al-Sabah became the ruler.
Around 422,560 Kuwaitis are eligible to vote in Saturday's election.
The country has a population of 3.3 million, some one million of whom are Kuwaiti nationals while the rest are foreign expatriates and stateless residents, according to the latest census.
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