KUWAIT: Police in Kuwait used teargas, stun grenades and baton charges on Sunday to disperse tens of thousands of demonstrators protesting against changes to the electoral law which the opposition has called a constitutional coup by the government.
Demonstrators gathered in various parts of the capital, Kuwait City, to march towards the government's headquarters, but riot police swiftly surrounded some groups and used teargas and stun grenades to disperse them, Reuters witnesses said.
A medical source said at least 29 people had been admitted to hospital, most of them suffering from teargas inhalation or from baton bruises. At least 15 people, including two former MPs and a reporter, were detained. An opposition activist estimated that up to 50,000 people had gathered in different locations.
The opposition decided to take to the streets after the government - which is dominated by the ruling Al-Sabah family - announced last week it was calling elections for Dec. 1 and would change the electoral law "to preserve national unity".
The announcement was the latest move in an intensifying power struggle between the ruling establishment and parliament that has seen eight governments come and go since the emir, Sheikh Sabah al-Ahmad al-Sabah, came to power in 2006.
The 83-year-old dissolved parliament on Oct. 7. It was the sixth time the oil-rich state and key U.S. ally had disbanded its legislature since early 2006. Its oil wealth and a generous welfare state have helped Kuwait avoid the kind of "Arab Spring" protests that toppled leaders elsewhere in the region.
Before Sunday's protest got underway, the authorities had promised to "decisively confront" demonstrators.
Witnesses said protesters who had initially been dispersed later regrouped to form a crowd estimated at more than 20,000 at a main road near Kuwait Towers, a seaside landmark in the Gulf oil producer.
"The decree is void, void," some protesters chanted, referring to the emir's order for a change to the election law. Demonstrators said they had were motivated by a feeling of injustice.
"We are entering a dark tunnel," said Salem al-Ajmi, a 30-year-old man, after police blocked him from reaching Kuwait Towers.
The protest ended just before midnight after police told demonstrators to leave or be evacuated by force, said news website www.alaan.cc.
Human rights lawyer Mohammed al-Humaidi said he estimated the number of people injured was as high as 100 rather than 29 and said some of them were in a serious condition, the same website reported.
Kuwait has been convulsed by regular demonstrations since last year, and the opposition - including Islamists, liberals and tribal figures who won a majority in the 50-seat parliament in the last election in February - have rejected the emir's proposed changes and said they will boycott the vote.
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.