Kuwait is heading into elections in much the same combative style that gripped the last parliament: Opposition groups pressing for even a bigger voice against the nation’s Western-allied rulers and domestic tensions running so high that one group torched the campaign tent of a rival. Thursday’s voting for the 50-seat assembly — one of the most outspoken elected bodies in the Gulf — will test how much Kuwait’s ruling family and its backers can hold back a growing array of challengers, including hard-line Islamists and young liberals inspired by the Arab Spring. An expected strong showing by opposition groups also could bring major distractions for Kuwait’s leadership as the nation regains its role as the main base for American ground troops in the Gulf following the U.S. withdrawal from Iraq last year.
Although Kuwait’s key government posts are firmly in the hands of the ruling Al Sabah family, the country’s parliament stands out in the Gulf as one of the few elected groups that openly confront the leadership over issues such as cronyism, free expression and alleged corruption. 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 mobs storming parliament.
About 400,000 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.