Jordan votes in poll boycotted by main Islamist party

AMMAN Wed Jan 23, 2013 6:37am EST

1 of 4. Jordanian Prime Minister Abdullah Ensour (3rd L) shows his ink-stained finger after casting his vote at a polling station in Al Salt January 23, 2013.

Credit: Reuters/Muhammad Hammad

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AMMAN (Reuters) - Jordanians voted on Wednesday in their first parliamentary elections since the Arab Spring revolts, but a boycott by the main Islamist party will ensure 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 favor of rural tribal areas where conservative, pro-government forces are entrenched.

Dozens of people lined up outside polling stations in several Jordanian towns before polls opened across the kingdom at 7 a.m. (0400 GMT), witnesses said.

Jordan, a U.S.-backed monarchy bordering Israel, has seen large protests against corruption and criticizing King Abdullah, although they have not been on the same scale as those that toppled rulers in Egypt and Tunisia and led to civil wars in Libya and Syria.

The government has promised free and fair polls and predicted a good turnout, despite the boycott.

"There are not two people in Jordan who are whispering that the government will interfere in the elections," Prime Minister Abdullah Ensour told Reuters this week.

The Muslim Brotherhood is the single most popular party in Jordan - with strong support in cities, especially among poorer Palestinians who live there.

Its 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 recognized parties. Allegations of vote-buying are rife.

The result may hand even more power to a tribal establishment that maintains a tight grip on power and is keen on maintaining costly state patronage but is resented by large parts of the urban poor who feel left out, politically and economically.

"There are no agendas in candidates' campaigns. Their campaigns are emotionally driven, and are based more on personal relationships than they are on constructive programs," said Sheikh Talal al-Madi, a former senator from a tribal area.

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. Wealthier Palestinians with economic power tend not to vote.

"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 a bloated public sector.

PROTESTS

Last November, steep fuel price rises provoked sometimes violent protests, as resentment about the cost of living and perceived government corruption bubbled up onto 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 stiff resistance to the Muslim Brotherhood's demands to change the voting system and introduce wider reforms that would undermine their political 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.

Many still see the king as the ultimate guarantee of stability in a country torn between a minority tribal population long used to preferential treatment by the state and a majority of Palestinian descent.

In the nearby village of Dafyanah, where most residents are either state employees or depend on state pensions, there are concerns about a lack of state jobs.

"I have a son who has not been working for the last two years and he has become a burden. I knock at government agencies who say we cannot employ you," said Abu Ahmad, a Bedouin who lives on a 250 dinar ($350) monthly army pension.

(Editing by Jon Boyle)

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