Jordan holds local elections in step to devolve powers

AMMAN (Reuters) - Jordan held local elections on Tuesday in a move officials say will help devolve some powers to larger cities and underdeveloped rural regions but which critics say falls short of promised wider political reform.

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The countrywide municipal vote - the first since 2013 - is a stated bid by the government to bring wider grassroots democracy that King Abdullah has said would provided marginalized communities with a bigger voice in state decisions.

Over 1.3 million people - or 31 percent of those eligible - voted on Tuesday, the head of the government run electoral commission Khaled Kalaldeh said. Over 30,000 police were deployed to secure more than 5,000 polling stations nationwide.

Over 6,000 candidates competed for 1,833 seats on 100 city and town councils and 12 new governorate (provincial) councils that will have the decisive say on investments in infrastructure and other projects of regional concern.

“Decisions on major developmental projects are now in their (governorate) hands and they are the ones who will set the priorities, not the ministries in the capital,” a senior government official told Reuters.

Last year parliament approved a decentralization law that established the governorate councils, with a 10 percent quota for women to encourage their participation.

“The Jordanian state continues to encourage elections and dialogue through the ballot boxes, at a time when we are surrounded by bloodshed and violence,” government spokesman Mohammad al Momani said.

But critics said the election turnout pointed to widespread voter apathy, particularly in the capital Amman and the provincial industrial city of Zarqa where many voiced doubt the government would delivering on pledges of democratic reform.

“Elections are a chance for change and shaping the future in democratic countries but, in the presence of authoritarianism, elections just reproduce past woes and existing suffering,” said Zaki Bani Rusheid, a leading member of the Muslim Brotherhood.

The Brotherhood is Jordan’s largest opposition party but its activities are restricted by state authorities in the kingdom.

Wider reforms, among them steps to curb gerrymandering that favors pro-government deputies, have stalled after a brief period in which the authorities allowed large peaceful protests and freer media expression to forestall an uprising of the sort that shattered other Arab countries starting in 2011.

The opposition’s main demand is an overhaul of an electoral law that magnifies the clout of sparsely populated tribal areas which form the backbone of support for the monarchy at the expense of larger cities where Islamists and Jordanians of Palestinian origin have a strong presence.

King Abdullah’s security forces have returned to keeping a tight lid on public dissent, routinely jailing peaceful activists who criticize Jordan’s ruling elite - the monarchy, security services and military - on social media.

Jordan, a staunch U.S. ally, has been relatively unscathed by the revolts, insurgencies and civil wars that have torn through Arab states, including its neighbors Iraq and Syria, over the past six years.

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Reporting by Suleiman Al-Khalidi; editing by Mark Heinrich