Oct. 22 (Bloomberg) -- Clashes broke out at a demonstration in Kuwait last night when thousands of protesters opposed to government-imposed changes to the voting law were confronted by security personnel in the oil-producing state.
Smoke bombs were used and shots fired near Kuwait Towers in Kuwait City, the capital, sending hundreds running from the area as flashes lit up the night sky and a helicopter circled above. Armed riot police blocked the roads, beat protesters and made arrests, according to people fleeing the area. One, Reem al-Fadala, said her husband Rashed al-Fadala, a political activist, had been arrested along with his brother.
“We only wanted a peaceful demonstration,” she said.
The cabinet held an extraordinary meeting Oct. 20 to issue a draft decree changing the voting system by reducing the number of candidates each voter can elect to one from four. The opposition has alleged the change will make it easier for corrupt candidates to buy votes. The cabinet issued a separate draft decree setting elections for Dec. 1.
The country’s benchmark stock index tumbled 3.1 percent, the most since July 2009, to 5,729.38 at the close in Kuwait City yesterday.
Kuwait’s emir said Oct. 19 he asked the government to amend the electoral system “to protect national unity, bolster the democratic practice and achieve equality among all Kuwaitis.”
“I have followed the latest developments in Kuwait with sorrow, pain and serious concern,” Sheikh Sabah Al Ahmad Jaber Al Sabah said in a televised address to the nation. The ruler called for unity and said he wouldn’t accept “the culture of violence” or “chaos on the street.”
The Interior Ministry said in a statement it would deal harshly with any violation of the law. Protest marches are illegal without prior approval in Kuwait. Groups of demonstrators “deliberately” ignored the ministry’s calls and “walked through commercial areas causing disruption of traffic” and hurling stones at security forces, injuring 11 of them, the ministry said in a statement. A number of people were arrested when security officers were forced to deal with “blatant violations and public breach of law,” it said.
Protesters had assembled at the Kuwait Towers after being prevented from marching from certain points in the city when a first round of clashes erupted. Protesters filing down the main coast road said they were following instructions via Twitter to relocate the protest to the towers, where police were already gathering in preparation.
Most opposition groups, and a number of former lawmakers who hadn’t previously supported opposition-led protests, criticized the voting changes and vowed to boycott the elections. Other former parliamentarians welcomed it, saying the change would bring stability to the country.
Steps toward democracy in OPEC’s third-biggest producer have led to repeated clashes between lawmakers and governments chosen by the ruling Al-Sabah family, straining an economy that trails Gulf peers as projects to diversify from oil become mired in political disputes.
Al-Sabah family members met the emir late yesterday and affirmed the “loyalty and obedience” of all members of the family, the state-run KUNA news agency reported.
Street protests last year, amplified by the wave of unrest across the Arab world, drove out a government headed by the emir’s nephew amid calls for more power-sharing with elected politicians. The emir dissolved parliament on Oct. 7, the third dissolution in less than a year.
The step followed a Constitutional Court ruling against a government bid to amend the voting system. The emir had dissolved that same parliament in December, after a dispute over alleged corruption fed unprecedented anti-government protests.
A new parliament was elected in February, with the opposition winning most of the 50 seats, only to be dissolved four months later when the Constitutional Court voided the vote and reinstated its predecessor. The opposition had considered the reinstated parliament to be illegal.
The election law, last amended in 2006, “showed a set of imbalances and problems that pose a serious threat” to national unity, security, and values and “fomented sectarianism and tribalism,” the emir said in his speech.
Kuwait’s opposition includes Islamists, liberals and independents, as well as youth groups that draw inspiration from the Arab Spring uprisings. Some groups want a constitutional monarchy and an elected government, while others say their focus is fighting corruption and bringing about reform without amending the constitution.
Kuwait was the largest producer in the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries last month after Saudi Arabia and Iraq, according to data compiled by Bloomberg.
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