By Sylvia Westall
KUWAIT (Reuters) - Thousands of Kuwaitis held a protest rally late on Monday ahead of a court decision on an electoral law they fear could weaken the chances of opposition candidates in the next parliamentary vote in the major oil-producing state.
The Gulf Arab country has not witnessed the kind of mass popular uprisings that have buffeted the Arab world. But tension has escalated between the government, which is dominated by the ruling family, and the elected parliament.
Against a backdrop of democratic change following street revolts in other Arab states, Kuwaiti opposition figures have called for an elected government and the opportunity to establish political parties, which are banned in Kuwait.
Around 4,000 people packed into a square outside parliament, the site of several anti-government rallies since late last year. The turnout was greater than in similar protests over the past month and there was a more visible police presence.
At the government's request, Kuwait's constitutional court is due to rule on Tuesday on the legality of the 2006 electoral law, which divides the country into five constituencies.
The government says the ruling is needed to protect the outcome of future elections from possible legal challenges.
The opposition is concerned that the court will declare the law unconstitutional, opening the way for the government to redraw electoral boundaries to its own advantage and gerrymander victories in elections expected later this year or next.
Opposition Islamist and tribal candidates performed strongly in Kuwait's February elections and formed a majority opposition bloc in parliament that raised pressure on the government.
But the constitutional court drew the anger of protesters in a separate ruling when it effectively dissolved the opposition-dominated 2012 parliament and reinstated a more government-friendly assembly.
"The people do not want the court to take a decision, they want to put it to a vote inside parliament instead," said Ahmed Sayad, from youth opposition group Nahj.
"The government is trying to erase the vote of the people," he said, before opposition lawmakers and political activists addressed the crowd from a stage with a large television screen.
Unable to form parties, Kuwaiti lawmakers create blocs in parliament based around tribal ties and policy, and they draw on support from various youth groups during opposition rallies.
"The government wants to play with the electoral system. The electoral law is constitutional," businessman Hussein al-Ajmi said. "There is big corruption in this country, from the top to the bottom. The government is trying to make problems, to divide us, to lead us in a vicious circle.".
"If the court does not give the parliament the decision, all the people will come out in bigger numbers on the streets," Salafi politician Waleed al-Tabtabie told Reuters Television.
Men in traditional Kuwaiti white robes kicked off their sandals and sat cross-legged on carpets in the square, some filming the speeches on their smart phones.
Around 500 people sat in chairs in front of the main stage. A small group of women, mainly wearing long black abayas, sat in a separate section near the front.
While Kuwait has one of the most progressive political systems in the Gulf, the head of the ruling family, Emir Sheikh Sabah al-Ahmad Al-Sabah, retains final say in political matters.
He chooses the prime minister, who in turn picks a cabinet, with important portfolios held by al-Sabah family members.
Years of political infighting have stalled investment in Kuwait, one of the richest countries in the world per capita.
Turnout at the height of protests last year over political corruption peaked at tens of thousands. (Additional reporting by Mahmoud Harby and Tony Faddoul; Editing by Mark Heinrich)