Opposition groups in Kuwait urged for high voter turnout Thursday in parliamentary elections that could increase the voice of government critics _ including hard-line Islamists factions _ in one of the West's main Gulf allies.
The outcome is widely expected to bring gains for groups that include both liberals inspired by the Arab Spring and Islamic-guided blocs that favor strict rules such as banning women from taking part in international sporting events.
A stronger political hold by the Islamists also could complicate Kuwait's close relationship with the U.S. military, which now has its main contingent of ground forces based in this country after the withdrawal from Iraq in December.
Kuwait's ruling family controls all key affairs in the oil-rich state. But its 50-seat parliament is one of the few elected bodies in the Gulf that openly challenge the country's leadership and that has the ability to bring no-confidence motions against government officials as high as the prime minister.
Opposition leaders were out in force trying to mobilize supporters on a blustery day with sandstorms in some areas. Security forces were deployed in many districts, but there were no reports of unrest after a turbulent run-up that included arsonists torching a rival's campaign tent and mobs storming a TV station during a debate.
Results from the hand-counted ballots are expected early Friday.
Kuwait's emir, Sheik Sabah Al Ahmad Al Sabah, dissolved parliament and called elections in December after months of political showdowns that included opposition lawmakers demanding to question the prime minister over an alleged payoff scandal and protests that culminated in anti-government crowds storming parliament.
Officials said 400,296 Kuwaitis are registered to vote in what will be the first parliamentary election since May 2009. The more than 280 candidates include 23 women, including re-election bids by four lawmakers who were the first women in the assembly. Pro-government lawmakers had a slight edge in the last parliament.
Opposition groups have gained strength in recent years over claims that Kuwait's rulers have tried to muzzle dissident voices, and complaints that the country has failed to keep pace with the Gulf powerhouses Qatar and the United Arab Emirates in the past decade.
In late November, the emir selected Defense Minister Sheik Jaber Al Hamad Al Sabah as the new prime minister, replacing the long-serving Sheik Nasser Al Mohammad Al Sabah. He had survived several no-confidence votes in parliament, but was the target of a growing campaign for his dismissal over allegations that government officials funneled payoffs to bank accounts outside the country. He has denied the charges.
While the expanding array of opposition candidates are expected to do well collectively, the election is a particular test of strength for the Islamist factions after similar groups dominated post-revolution elections in Tunisia and Egypt.