By Sylvia Westall
KUWAIT (Reuters) - Late last year 25-year-old Kuwaiti activist Mohammad Qasem was taking part in mass protests against changes to the voting system almost every week ahead of a parliamentary election.
Eight months on, the Gulf Arab state is holding another election using the new rules after its top court threw out legal challenges against them, ruled that the last election was legally flawed and ordered a new poll.
This time around the streets are empty and dozens of activists have been charged, mainly for insulting the ruling emir who brought in the voting changes using executive powers.
"Some (activists) are much more pessimistic. It is not like we lost a battle, but it is not won yet," Qasem said.
In late 2012 Kuwaitis staged some of the largest demonstrations ever seen in the major OPEC oil producer and U.S. ally, saying Sheikh Sabah al-Ahmad al-Sabah's emergency decree put opposition politicians at a disadvantage.
The thousands of mostly young Kuwaitis who took to the streets also expressed frustration with political gridlock and bureaucratic hurdles which have hampered economic development in one of the world's richest countries per capita.
A 30-billion-dinar ($105-billion) plan to build a refinery, airport, hospitals, housing and highways announced in 2010 is already lagging behind schedule.
Kuwaitis fed up with such delays complain they have to put up with housing shortages and clogged roads while other Gulf states, such as Qatar and the United Arab Emirates, press ahead with ambitious and costly modernization projects.
Saturday's election will be Kuwait's sixth since 2006. Kuwait has the most open political system in the Gulf Arab region thanks to its 50-member elected assembly which has the power to pass legislation and question ministers.
Final authority, however, rests with the 84-year-old hereditary emir who selects the prime minister who in turn appoints a cabinet. Top portfolios are traditionally held by members of the 250-year-old Al-Sabah dynasty.
The demonstrations last year opened up a sensitive debate about this balance of power in Kuwait.
"Some people thought that after the demonstrations the authorities would just back up and withdraw the emergency decree," said Qasem, a member of the liberal Progressive Current group. "It is not that easy, it takes continuous work and organization in the long term."
Critics said the voting system announced in October, which cut the number of votes per citizen to one from four, would prevent the opposition from forming a majority in parliament.
The government said the changes brought Kuwait into line with other countries and the emir said the new system would ensure security and stability.
Many prominent opposition politicians are boycotting Saturday's election, but overall participation in the campaign has been broader than in December.
"The protest movement fizzled out because the government has used a long-haul strategy," said Abdullah al-Shayji, chairman of the political science department at Kuwait University.
"The government thought that people would get fed up with the opposition and the opposition has fragmented," he said, adding that this did not mean it was a spent force.
A prominent opposition member, Musallam al-Barrak, alienated some Kuwaitis when in a speech last year he warned the emir against "authoritarian rule", Shayji said.
"It went above and beyond what was acceptable. They said that Kuwaitis do not act in this way towards the ruling family."
Kuwait has avoided the mass unrest that has unseated four Arab rulers since 2011. But regional turmoil has emboldened activists who say demands for more political participation have increased.
"Two-and-a-half years ago we did not say anything about an elected government, we did not think about it," said 26-year-old Meshal al-Zaidi, who helped to organize protests.
Political reform campaigners believed they would need five years just to plant the seed of the idea, but it only took one year, he said.
Kuwaitis are now openly asking for an elected government and an end to the ban on political parties, as well as a fairer voting system, said Zaidi, a member of the Civil Democratic Movement, another political group.
"The red line is moving fast. Two years ago you could barely criticize the prime minister," Zaidi said.
In 2011 the prime minister, the emir's nephew, was forced to step down after opposition-led protests fuelled unprecedented criticism of a ruling family member.
Opposition campaigners say the protests have dwindled due to the court's ruling in favor of the emir, disillusion with politicians and apathy, as well as the jailing of dissidents and hot weather during the Muslim fasting month of Ramadan.
The protest movement has used the time to redefine its goals as well as the methods used to reach them, activists said. Some are starting to question the effectiveness of opposition politicians.
Rather than focus on street protests, Rana al-Sadoun, 36, this year formed a group that supports arrested activists.
Named the National Committee for Monitoring Violations, it observes protests, publishes details of arrests and puts people in touch with lawyers. Its 18 or so members come from varied backgrounds, and include liberals and Islamists, Sadoun said.
Much of the work is done via Twitter, which is hugely popular in Kuwait.
"People came to us, they gave us a copy of their cases, they trust us," she said. "They contact us and say: 'I am his cousin, where is he now?'. Some lawyer then tweets to me that they took him to this police station."
Shafeeq Ghabra, political science professor at Kuwait University, predicted a greater focus on amending the 50-year-old constitution to allow more participation in the electoral process and a rebalancing of power between different groups.
"People's beliefs and demands and eagerness for change are expressed in waves," he said. "I think we are coming to a new wave. Waves are not necessarily protesting in the streets."
(Editing by Alistair Lyon and Sonya Hepinstall)
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