By Sylvia Westall
KUWAIT (Reuters) - An opposition group in Kuwait, the Gulf Arab country with the most open political system, has set out a wide-ranging proposal for reform including parties, an elected government and greater powers for parliament.
The Opposition Coalition, formed last year by already existing groups of nationalists, Islamists, youths and liberals, issued a call at the weekend for major constitutional and legislative reforms to give elected officials more power.
Kuwait, a U.S. ally and one of the world's richest countries per capita, has avoided the severe unrest seen elsewhere in the Arab region. But tensions have persisted between parliament and the cabinet, controlled by the ruling al-Sabah family, holding up reforms and investment.
Members of the family, which has ruled Kuwait since the 18th century, hold the top cabinet posts. Emir Sheikh Sabah al-Ahmad al-Sabah has the final say on state matters and has dissolved parliament several times since coming to power in 2006.
"The establishment of a full parliamentary system achieves the principle of 'the sovereignty of the people, the source of all powers'," the Opposition Coalition said on its new website www.opkuwait.com, citing the 1962 constitution.
The group said parliament should be able to work without the threat of dissolution, unless there are exceptional circumstances.
Kuwaitis should be allowed to form political parties and the leader of the group with the most votes in parliamentary elections should be able to form a government. This will make it more accountable to the public, it said.
At the moment, a prime minister picked by the emir forms a cabinet. The prime minister is a member of the ruling family, as are the foreign, interior and defense ministers.
The reform plan is significant but should also be seen as a starting point for negotiations, said Shafeeq Ghabra, professor of political science at Kuwait University.
"I think this is the first time that you get a coalition of forces - which has an important element of representation at the level of the street and at the political level - that has come up with a document stating where it wants to go," he said.
"It does represent a thinking that is emerging, regardless of the politics," he said.
Although it has not had "Arab Spring" type unrest, Kuwait saw thousands take to the streets in 2012 to protest against electoral rule changes Sheikh Sabah made under his emergency powers. He said they were important for security and stability.
The youth-led protests included members of the long-established political opposition, which held seats in previous parliaments and formed a bloc to put pressure on the cabinet.
The opposition boycotted elections after the emir made the changes and the protest movement faded. Protesters often complained the opposition lacked a clear political program.
"Much of this group was the mainstream of politics a couple of years ago and this could be its way of coming back," political scientist Ghabra said.
He saw the reform plan as a way of encouraging others to move toward an alternative, including the elite. "I think it is an opening position for a long-term process and negotiated solution," he said.
(Reporting by Sylvia Westall; Editing by Tom Heneghan)