KUWAIT CITY — 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.
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.
Kuwait's tensions have roots years before the Arab Spring protests, but factions such as Kuwait's Fifth Fence movement have drawn encouragement from the push for reforms and more accountability from officials around the region.
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.
"Despite the wealth of the country, Kuwait has been witnessing a decline in the quality of services and government operations," said Kuwait-based political analyst Shafiq Ghabra. "The youth today are aware, and they are adamant on building the nation. If they are dissatisfied with the performance of the parliament, they will make their opinion heard."
The campaign has taken on increasingly bitter tones as Kuwait's powerful tribes jockey for position.
On Monday, thousands of angry members of the al-Mutairi tribe burned down a tent that served as headquarters of candidate Mohammad al-Juwaihel after he allegedly insulted the tribe in a televised speech.
Al-Juwaihel has alleged that many tribes are not "true Kuwaitis" because of ancestral roots in Saudi Arabia that allow them to obtain dual citizenship and have access to the cradle-to-grave welfare systems of both countries.
Hundreds of protesters believed linked to the al-Mutairi stormed the building of private Watan TV early Wednesday during a debate that included an ally of Al-Jawaihel. Police used tear gas to disperse the crowd.
In recent weeks, riot police also have clashed with protesters who claim Kuwait is depriving them of citizenship and rights. The rallies defied orders by authorities to halt the demonstrations, which are led by descendants of desert nomads who are considered stateless by Kuwait. They seek access to the oil-rich nation's extensive benefits such as free health care and state jobs. The stateless residents can't vote.
The U.S. military plans to boost the number of troops stationed in Kuwait following the pullout of American forces in Iraq in December.