AMMAN (Reuters) - Jordan holds an election on Tuesday set to keep parliament in the hands of tribal, centrist and pro-government deputies under a system that under-represents the cities where the Islamist and liberal opposition do best.
Across the country banners of around 900 candidates fluttered from trees and signposts appealing to 2.4 million eligible voters on mostly tribal and family loyalty.
Few divisive issues such as the gap between rich and poor and criticism of the pro-Western government were found in manifestos focusing mostly on parochial issues, with the exception of the Islamists, the only effective grassroots opposition,
Most of Jordan’s 5.6 million people live in cities which are traditional Islamist strongholds but the assembly’s 110 seats favor sparsely populated rural areas.
Tuesday’s polls are the second parliamentary vote under the reform-minded monarch King Abdullah who ascended the throne in 1999 on a wave of hope he would democratize the country.
Critics say this election, unlike the last in 2003, has seen influential politicians and business figures using patronage and vote-buying to maintain their hold. Stories abound of candidates promising anything from heaters to food in exchange for support.
The elected legislature still wields little real power. It can introduce legislation, but most of the laws are drafted by the government which has rarely been censured or blocked.
Tarek Khoury, 39, a wealthy liberal businessman seeking to win the affluent third district of Amman, counters widespread apathy of many ordinary Jordanians who see parliament as toothless and powerless to bring real change.
“Democracy is still nascent...I am seeking to attract young Jordanians who want change and I think the tribal character of parliament is receding, especially in Amman,” Khoury said in his slick campaign headquarters surrounded by scores of supporters.
Liberal politicians say the king has spearheaded efforts to modernize his tribal kingdom but an old guard that has kept a tight grip on power has delayed political reforms that risk boosting the influence of Islamists who capitalize on growing corruption and lack of accountability.
Conservative politicians in power for decades fear the Islamists could make electoral gains like their ideological allies in the Palestinian territories, Egypt and Turkey.
But moderate Islamists and liberals alike say authoritarian rule could boost religious militancy in a country where unemployment is high and most people have harsh living conditions.
The opposition Islamic Action Front (IAF), the political wing of the religious Muslim Brotherhood movement, has fielded 22 candidates, less than in 2003, and says it fears government vote-rigging. But a foothold in a flawed political process was a “lesser evil” than being left in the political wilderness.
“If we boycotted the elections we would have gained popularity but we have a national duty not to leave the arena to those who want to corrupt political life,” the head of the Muslim Brotherhood, Salem Falahat, told an election rally.
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