KUWAIT CITY – Kuwait's government on Saturday set parliamentary elections for Dec. 1 in a bid to ease months of deepening political turmoil that has pit the pro-Western ruling family against opposition forces led by Islamists.
The elections — which will be the second this year in the oil-rich Gulf nation — will be held under voting district demarcations that appeared to favor the Islamists and allies in the last balloting in February.
Another opposition victory would put further pressure on Kuwait's ruling family to loosen its control over key government positions and impose more conservative rules such as banning cultural events considered offensive to Islamic values. It also could bring more questions over Kuwait's tight alliance with the United States.
Kuwait is one of America's most strategic Gulf military allies, with its importance to Washington rising sharply after the U.S. troop withdrawal from Iraq in December. It is now the hub for U.S. ground forces in the Gulf region, where the U.S. and its Arab allies seek to counter Iran's military buildup.
Kuwait's parliament is the most politically empowered among the Gulf Arab states, and directly challenges the ruling family over its policies and government spending. Opposition lawmakers frequently have demanded top government officials, including the prime minister, appear for questioning.
Opposition groups have staged increasingly bold rallies to demand new elections after parliament was disbanded earlier this month following months of political tensions.
Last week, nearly 8,000 protesters gathered in Kuwait City in a show of force that included clashes with riot police. Later, the ruling family urged the nation to show loyalty to the emir, Sheik Sabah Al Ahmad Al Sabah.
Another major opposition rally is planned for Sunday. Authorities have said the gathering can take place in an area outside the parliament building, but any attempts to stage marches through the city would be dealt with "firmly and decisively" by security forces.
Although no changes will be made to voting district rules favored by the opposition, an announcement on state TV Saturday said the upcoming election will eliminate voters' ability to cast multiple ballots for candidates and sets a one-vote-per-person rule.
It's unclear, however, whether this will undercut the rising influence of Islamists and tribal groups that also accuse the ruling family of abusing its power and failing to reverse the country's economic slide in the past decades as rivals such as Dubai and Doha have become international hubs.
Kuwait has not faced widespread unrest since the Arab Spring uprisings erupted last year across the Middle East, but political battles and labor upheavals have stalled many development plans and rewritten the rules on political dissent. Last year, dozens of anti-government protesters muscled their way into parliament during a debate over efforts to question the prime minister about corruption allegations.