DUBAI, United Arab Emirates: Kuwait risks sliding into Arab Spring-style protests over a forthcoming election that has polarised opinion in the Gulf Arab state and posed an unprecedented challenge to the authority of the once revered emir, a close Western ally.
Kuwait saw some of the worst violence in its recent history when tens of thousands of demonstrators - out of a native population of just 1.2 million - protested this week at changes to election laws they see as an attempt to limit the prospects for the opposition at the parliamentary vote on Dec. 1.
In clashes with security forces, at least 29 people were injured and at least 15 were detained.
The government and an opposition that includes Islamists, liberals and traditional tribal leaders have since dug in deeper into entrenched positions in the dispute, setting the stage for further confrontations in the run-up to the ballot.
The government has now banned gatherings of more than 20 people and given security forces authority to disperse any protests. More are planned, however - notably an event on Thursday near parliament where activists have invited people to break the religious fast on the eve of the Eid al-Adha holiday.
"I am afraid that confrontations may continue and then they will be forced to impose martial law that will lead to repression," Kuwaiti analyst Ayed al-Manna said. That, he said, would damage Kuwait's tradition of allowing greater popular involvement in public life than is common in the Gulf.
"It is in the interest of the regime to have popular participation in the election and not to have a weak parliament," Manna said.
The OPEC oil exporter has long been beset by political friction centred on a power struggle between the parliament and governments dominated by members of the ruling Al-Sabah family, who opponents say have resisted public accountability.
The rulers are firm allies of Western powers. Washington led an international force to oust occupying Iraqi troops from Kuwait in 1991, allow the Al-Sabah to return from a year-long exile and U.S. troops remain stationed there.
The current crisis was sparked when the emir used his powers of decree to order amendments to voting boundaries after a court had rejected the proposals. He called it necessary for national unity, but the opposition said it was an attempt to ensure wins for pro-government candidates and has vowed to boycott the vote.
"(Sunday's) demonstrations were a message to the government that there is a deficiency and the government needs to fix that," said Nasser al-Abdali, a pro-democracy activist.
The crisis emanates from a political system that dates back to the 1960s, when Kuwait became independent from Britain. It allows for a popularly elected parliament but keeps ultimate political and economic power in the ruling family's hands.