(Kuwait City, Kuwait) -- Police in Kuwait used teargas and stun grenades on Sunday (October 21) to disperse demonstrators as thousands marched in a protest against changes to the electoral law which the opposition has called a constitutional coup by the government, Reuters witnesses said.
Demonstrators had 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, 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 six people, including a former MP 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.
There were unconfirmed reports that police tried to break up the Kuwait Towers protest using rubber bullets, teargas and stun grenades, forcing some people to leave and join another protest outside the parliament building in the centre of the capital.
"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.
"My brothers, we wish from the Interior Ministry and we hope the special forces especially, that they do not provoke people and we warn not to provoke people. People are sitting here, and there is nothing in the law to prevent them from sitting. We are sitting and all are brothers and all are citizens. Later we will leave this place and walk and we hope that this does not cause problems. In case anything happens then the Ministry of Interior will be wholly responsible, from the first to last, and so we warn the Ministry of the Interior," said one protester.
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.
Kuwait's opposition has been emboldened after Arab protests toppled four heads of state.
Some have been demanding a constitutional state and for the emir to resign but for governments to be formed by majority groups in the 50-member assembly. Others have made more modest demands for the government formed by the emir to be subject to full parliamentary scrutiny.
The Al-Sabah dynasty has ruled Kuwait for more than 250 years and although Kuwait allows more freedom of speech than some Gulf states, the emir is seen as untouchable and is referred to as "immune and inviolable" in the constitution.