Political tensions high in Jordan as polls open in boycotted vote
Jordanians were voting Wednesday in polls snubbed by Islamists behind strident pro-reform protests who have already labelled as illegitimate what is expected to be an opposition-free parliament.
"This time, the elections are clean. It is a step towards reform and not an end to reform. Elections top our reform efforts," Prime Minister Abdullah Nsur told reporters after he voted in his hometown Salt, northwest of Amman.
"This is a new era. I am optimistic about a bright future. The people want strong and firm legislative and executive powers."
Voting was off to a sluggish start, with Abdul Ilah Khatib, head of the Independent Election Commission, reporting that only 125,000 people cast their ballots within the first three hours, out of 2.3 million registered voters.
He added that "no problems" had so far been reported.
In Amman, some rented cars were seen offering to ferry people to polling stations, where supporters of the various candidates gathered hoping to sway undecided voters.
"I voted to help my country fight corruption. It is a national duty. Everyone seems tense. We have high hopes the new parliament will help come up with change that we aspired to," Abedrabbo Abu Hedib, 55, said after he voted in a west Amman polling centre.
The powerful Muslim Brotherhood and the National Reform Front of former premier and intelligence chief Ahmad Obeidat are staying away from the polls, arguing that there is no real will to reform.
"The coming parliament will be short-lived because it will not have any political weight," Zaki Bani Rsheid, deputy leader of the Muslim Brotherhood, said soon after polls opened.
"Our boycott was the right decision because a parliament or government that is imposed on people is illegitimate," he said.
The Arab Spring movement that began two years ago and toppled four regimes across the region also sparked regular protests in Jordan, where a combination of youths and Islamists have been demanding sweeping political and economic reforms.
Their protests have become increasingly vocal and, during deadly November rioting over a sharp hike in fuel prices, there were unprecedented calls from some quarters for King Abdullah II to step down.
The monarch, whose throne is not seriously thought to be under threat, is hoping that Wednesday's polls will produce a new crop of strong MPs who will work efficiently to jump start reform.
But analysts say tribal leaders and other pro-regime figures, along with independent businessmen, are expected to sweep the polls in the country of 6.8 million people.
The election "will add to problems instead of solving them, particularly under the boycott. We will see a parliament that does not have political weight", analyst Oraib Rintawi, head of the Al-Quds Centre for Political Studies, said.
The king has said that he plans for the first time to consult with MPs before naming prime ministers, insisting on Jordan's need to create strong political parties to help pave the way for parliamentary governments.
Islamists also object to existing constituency boundaries, which they say over-represent loyalist rural areas at the expense of Islamist urban bastions.
They and Obeidat's front are also angry at the lack of genuine reform, little progress in fighting corruption and a failure to move towards a constitutional monarchy with the premier chosen by parliament rather than the king.
The polls come as Jordan faces acute economic problems, including a $5-billion (3.6-billion-euro) budget deficit, and challenges in coping with more than 300,000 Syrian refugees who have fled their war-torn country.
Unemployment in the poor desert kingdom officially stands at 14 percent, but non-governmental sources put the figure as high as 30 percent, and a majority of the country's youth are without jobs.
Wednesday has been declared a national holiday to encourage voters to turn up at the 1,484 polling stations countrywide. A total of 1,425 candidates, including around 140 former MPs and 191 women, are contesting 150 seats in parliament's lower house.
Some 47,000 police have been deployed to provide security.