Kuwait’s constitutional court dissolved parliament on Sunday and called for fresh elections under a voting system rejected by the opposition, a move that could bring more volatility to a Gulf Arab state hit by extraordinary street protests last year.
Kuwait’s ruler made a televised plea for citizens to accept the changes to the voting rules, asking them to reject “the voices of chaos”.
“I accept…the ruling of the Constitutional Court regardless of its content, and I call on all citizens to respect it and abide by it,” Emir Sheikh Sabah al-Ahmed al-Sabah said in a special broadcast on state television.
The opposition lost its legal fight to undo changes to the voting system which it sees as making it more difficult to form alliances in a country that bans political parties.
Those changes sparked last year’s demonstrations by liberals, Islamists, nationalists and youth activists, which were unusual both for their size and for the direct challenge to the emir’s policies voiced by marchers.
“This verdict today is the worst decision,” former opposition MP Waleed Tabtabie, a Salafi Islamist, wrote on Twitter to his 390,000 followers.
Opposition politicians boycotted the last election in December and have said they would boycott the next one unless the changes to the voting system were reversed. The court threw out the opposition challenges and ordered a new vote under the new system, which must take place within two months.
Kuwait’s parliament gives its people greater say than in the other tightly-controlled Arab monarchies of the Gulf, although the emir still has the final word in state matters, with members of his ruling Al-Sabah family occupying the top posts.
Under the old system, voters were allowed to cast ballots for up to four candidates, which the opposition said allowed alliances that partly made up for the absence of political parties. The new voting system allows votes for only a single candidate, which the opposition says makes alliances difficult.
The new election will be the sixth since 2006. Political upheaval has held up economic development and reforms.
The new voting rules were decreed by the emir using emergency powers six weeks before December’s poll. The opposition challenged the constitutionality of that decree, but in Sunday’s ruling the court found that it was valid.
The court found a separate technical flaw in the process leading up to the election, requiring a new vote to be held.
Last year’s changes to the voting system triggered a wider debate about the executive powers of the hereditary emir.
Kuwait has the most democratic system in the six-nation Gulf Cooperation Council thanks to a parliament with legislative powers and the ability to hold government ministers to account.
The emir is described as immune and inviolable in the constitution and dozens of Kuwaitis have been charged with insulting him, mainly on social media.
The 84-year-old emir, who has ruled the country since 2006, also warned Kuwaitis against sectarianism, an apparent reference to an unrelated demonstration outside the Lebanese Embassy last week against Lebanese Shi’ite militia Hezbollah’s involvement in the Syrian conflict.
Recent events could “lure the fire of fanaticism and extremism,” he said. Kuwait has a Sunni majority and Shi’ite minority, and authorities are wary of sectarian violence in the region.