KUWAIT CITY - Kuwaitis were voting Thursday, February 2, to elect a new parliament, their fourth in six years, with Islamists are predicted to emerge the winners.
"We are very optimistic that the opposition will achieve a majority in the next parliament," former Islamist MP Waleed al-Tabtabai told Agence France-Presse (AFP).
"I am hopeful that disputes will diminish because the opposition will strengthen its presence."
Polling stations opened early morning for voters to elect a new parliament, the fourth in six years.
Some 286 candidates are vying for seats in the 50-member parliament, including 23 women.
Men and women queued outside separate schools, handing their identity cards to a panel before selecting up to four candidates on a piece of paper and slipping it into a see-through ballot box.
"I voted for the people who will accelerate development and the economy," Monia al-Nouri told Reuters as she emerged from a polling station in a suburb of the capital.
Thursday's poll was called after Kuwait's Emir Sheikh Sabah al-Ahmad Al-Sabah dissolved parliament following unprecedented protests led by youths inspired by the Arab Spring.
The protests led to the resignation of the previous government and former prime minister Sheikh Nasser Mohammad al-Ahmad Al-Sabah who was replaced by another senior royal, in a move unusual in the oil-rich emirate.
"We have many Kuwaitis who don't have job opportunities. Things are dead in the water now in terms of the economy and social development," said al-Nouri.
Female voters make up 54 percent of the electorate in the wealthy Arab Gulf country.
Kuwait has a population of 3.6 million as of mid-2011, but 68 percent of those are foreigners with Kuwaitis numbering 1.17 million.
Polling closes at 1700 GMT with the first results expected early on Friday as ballot papers are counted manually.
About 30 international and 300 local observers have been allowed by the government to monitor the election for the first time.
Some voters were worried that the new election would not help return stability to the Arab country.
"The atmosphere is unhealthy and highly charged ... because sectarian and tribal tensions are negatively impacting our country, former oil minister Adel al-Sabeeh told AFP.
Kuwait is a small country and does not bear struggles.
"The opposition is likely to boost its strength but I think we are headed for more disputes.
Ordinary voters were also worried.
"We are very frustrated and worried about what is happening in Kuwait," said one woman, Umm Saud, after casting her vote at Jabriya, 15 kilometers (nine miles) south of Kuwait City.
"I am not optimistic this election will resolve our problems, but I pray that I am wrong," she told AFP.
Fatima Akbar, a former school teacher clad in an abaya and a headscarf, echoed a similar sentiment.
"We are worried about the conflicts in Kuwait, especially sectarian tension," between the Sunni majority and Shiite minority, she said.
Tensions between Sunnis and Shiites -- who make up 30 percent of Kuwaitis -- have intensified in past months, mainly over regional issues such as Bahrain, Iran and Syria.
Shiite candidates lamented last year's crackdown on their co-religionist protesters in Bahrain, while Sunni candidates warned of Shiite Iran's ambitions in the region.On Monday, tribesmen burned the election tent of a pro-government candidate for remarks deemed derogatory to a Bedouin tribe. They also stormed offices of a local TV station for hosting a pro-government candidate.