Jordan votes, but main Islamist party boycotts poll
By Suleiman Al-Khalidi | January 24, 2013 2:42 AM EST
Jordanians voted in their first parliamentary elections since the Arab Spring revolts on Wednesday, but a boycott by the main Islamist party guaranteed there would be no repeat of an Egypt-style revolution via the ballot box.
The popular Muslim Brotherhood shunned the poll saying the electoral system had been rigged against large, populated urban areas where it is strongest in favour of rural tribal areas where conservative, pro-government forces are entrenched.
Turnout was 47 percent by around 1500 GMT, officials said, but Islamists accused the authorities of trying to inflate low turnout to disguise the impact of their boycott. Official results were expected on Thursday.
The Brotherhood's boycott has reduced the election to a contest between tribal leaders, establishment figures and businessmen, with just a few of the 1,500 candidates running for recognised parties. Allegations of vote-buying are rife.
"God willing these elections will produce a good parliament that will consider the needs of the citizens. We hope this parliament will be better than the previous one," said Iskandar Nuqul, a voter in Amman's first electoral district.
Jordan, a U.S.-backed monarchy bordering Israel, has seen large protests against corruption and criticising King Abdullah, though not on the scale of those that toppled rulers in Egypt and Tunisia and led to civil wars in Libya and Syria.
Yet despite the growing pressure for change, the political elite is wary of the Arab revolts and the rise of Islamists, especially the Muslim Brotherhood - Jordan's most popular party - which is pressing for major political change.
Poorer Jordanians of Palestinian origin, a majority of the population, are drawn to the Brotherhood, which has become the champion of those disenfranchised by the electoral system. The wealthy Palestinian business elite mostly does not vote.
COSTLY STATE PATRONAGE
The tribal establishment is keen to maintain its tight grip on power and costly state patronage, drawing resentment from the urban poor and the middle classes of Palestinian origin, frozen out of the top army, security and government jobs.
It has stymied free market reforms designed to cut back welfare and patronage in a bureaucracy dominated by native Jordanians, who form the backbone of support for the monarch.
A U.S. diplomatic cable published by WikiLeaks said Jordan's "bloated civil service and military patronage system" soaked up 83 percent of Jordan's 2010 budget.
An economic crisis sparked by a surge in energy costs when Egypt's new Islamist rulers reduced cheap gas supplies in November has only deepened the budget crisis and the political divide.
Sparsely populated rural and tribal constituencies, where pro-government tribes are strong, get a bigger weighting in parliament than the Palestinian-dominated poor urban constituencies where the Islamists find their support.
"This is a sham election whose results will only erode the credibility of the future parliament," said Zaki Bani Rusheid, deputy head of the Muslim Brotherhood.
More than two thirds of Jordan's 7 million people live in cities but are allocated less than a third of assembly seats.
Jordanians are voting amid economic gloom, with austerity policies guided by the International Monetary Fund that the government was forced to adopt last year to avoid a fiscal crisis after years of spending on its bloated public sector.
Steep fuel price rises in November provoked sometimes violent protests, as resentment about the cost of living and perceived government corruption transformed into political protests on the streets.
Islamists and some tribal opposition figures have called on the king to relinquish his power to appoint governments. They say constitutional changes last year that shifted some powers from the monarch to parliament fell short of their demands.
But in tribal strongholds like the northern village of Umm Jimal, there is deep resistance to the Brotherhood's demands for electoral reform that would undermine their privileges.
"Our people would not accept in any way that anyone touches the institutions responsible for the protection of the country and its stability or security. These issues, they are not even worthy of discussion," tribal chief Saed Hael Srour said as supporters packed into his election tent.
Srour, a prominent lawmaker and former interior minister, said his constituents opposed the Islamists' demands to reduce the monarchy's powers or touch the state funds allocated to the security forces which mainly employs native Jordanians.
(Editing by Jon Boyle)
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