By Ahmed Hagagy
KUWAIT (Reuters) - Kuwaiti opposition groups were preparing to protest on Sunday against what they called a constitutional coup by the government, setting up a potential showdown with security forces under orders to confront them "decisively".
The government, dominated by the Al-Sabah royal family, announced last week it was calling elections for December 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.
Opposition leaders called the changes "a coup against the constitution" and urged a boycott of the poll.
They called a demonstration for Sunday, which activists said would start from a number of locations in Kuwait City after Muslim evening prayers and gather outside government offices.
"We expect a peaceful, civilized march by demonstrators," said Dhari Al-Rujaib, a youth activist of the Progressive Current of Kuwait, adding that up to 60,000 people were expected to take part.
Kuwait has avoided the uprisings that have forced four Arab heads of state out of office since last year, thanks partly to its generous welfare system.
But regular demonstrations demanding democratic reforms and an end to corruption have taken place in the Gulf Arab oil exporter and key U.S. ally since last year.
FORCES ON ALERT
The state news agency KUNA reported late on Saturday that Interior Minister Sheikh Ahmad al-Hamoud al-Sabah had instructed security forces to "decisively confront" any attempt to hold protests outside designated areas. The ministry also said special forces were on alert to deal with any unrest.
"There is information that some groups intend to sow chaos and undermine security by holding marches and sit-ins in certain areas in violation of the law," the daily al-Watan quoted General Mahmoud al-Dosari, deputy interior minister for security affairs, as saying.
"We warn those that we will act decisively to implement the law ... We will not let them hold marches and protests."
It was not immediately clear whether the marches would go into areas considered off-limits for protests.
But there appeared to be potential for a repeat of the skirmishes that occurred on Monday when police and protesters fought over a barricaded street after 5,000 people demonstrated outside parliament. Security forces arrested at least five people, including two former members of parliament.
The deepening crisis has taken its toll on the stock market, which dropped as much as 3.4 percent on Sunday, heading for its biggest daily fall since mid-2009, when shares were hit by the global financial crisis.
The crisis escalated in June this year when the top court annulled the last election which had been held in February, reinstating the previous, more government-friendly assembly.
The turmoil has not only paralyzed the political system but also blocked major economic development plans.
(Writing by Sami Aboudi; Editing by Andrew Torchia and Kevin Liffey)