Islamist boycott, violence mar Jordanian election

The legislature is expected to stay pro-government, much to the chagrin of a citizenry fed up with slow reform

By Jamal Halaby
Published November 9, 2010 7:43PM (EST)

A boycott by the Islamist opposition, voter apathy and scattered violence marred Jordan's parliamentary election Tuesday and ensured a compliant legislature that will not challenge the slow pace of political reform under King Abdullah II.

The expected pro-government results will strengthen Abdullah's course of strong ties with Washington and limited criticism of Israel, though Jordan's public has fiercely scorned the Jewish state over the stalled peace talks with the Palestinians.

"This parliament will be a talk shop, just like the previous ones," said Mohammed el-Haj, a 24-year-old cashier at an Amman convenience store who saw no point in voting. "Lawmakers don't do anything for us. They just make speeches, but nothing more. ... It's only words, but no deeds."

In the most serious violence, supporters of rival candidates in the small southeastern town of Imrea fired gunshots at each other, killing a 25-year-old man and wounding six others, police said. A handful of armed men were arrested.

In the capital, Amman, rival sides clashed in several upscale neighborhoods, hurling stones, breaking shop windows and setting trash bins alight. In one case, police had to use tear gas to disperse crowds. No casualties were reported.

Southwest of the capital, more than two dozen people wielding knives and axes tried to force voters in the city of Madaba to vote for their candidate.

The election is the fourth under Abdullah, a key U.S. ally who ascended to the throne in 1999 vowing to transform his desert Arab kingdom into a model democracy in the Muslim world. But his reforms have been slow.

Weighing heavier on people's minds in this election was the growing poverty in a country bereft of natural resources. Voters said they hoped the new legislature would take action to spur economic growth.

"There's a chance that this parliament will be different and will work with the government to improve the economy and help the poor," said Abla Ghneim, 32, a civil engineer.

There was also widespread pessimism. While overall turnout was about 53 percent, it was just 34 percent in the capital, reflecting both apathy and the boycott calls by Islamist politicians, who have more support in Jordan's urban areas.

Islamists boycotted the vote to protest a new election law that they said devalued votes in those areas where they had most support. Seven members of the Islamic Action Front, which commanded six seats in the previous parliament, challenged the party's boycott and ran as independents.

The government has been hesitant to change the electoral law, fearing Islamists would regain a majority in parliament, as happened in 1989.

Wary of the rising power of Islamic militant groups like the Palestinian Hamas, Jordan's political reforms have stagnated as the government looks to limit Islamist influence at home.

"There will be a total support for the king's policies in the new parliament and, with the absence of Islamic opposition, criticism of Israel will be much weaker," said political analyst Oraib al-Rentawi.

Among the public, there is anger at a government they feel does not demonstrate enough opposition to Israel's policies toward the Palestinians.

There are also fears that if Israeli-Palestinian peace talks fail, Israel could try to expel the 2.5 million Palestinians from the West Bank into Jordan. While only a tiny fraction of Israelis support such a scenario, the anxiety is palpable in Jordan, where Palestinians number about half the country's 6 million people.

Abdullah has pressed forward with reforms on the economy in which the cash-strapped nation entered lucrative ventures with Israel under their 1994 peace treaty. Exports have risen with free trade agreements with the United States, Canada and Turkey.

Jordan faces serious economic challenges, including a record budget deficit of $2.1 billion and a rising foreign debt, now at $12 billion.

Many voters expressed skepticism that the new legislature would help create needed jobs or alleviate growing poverty despite campaign posters promising improvements. "Putting food on the table is our national priority," read one.

In all, 763 candidates, including 134 women, vied for votes. The elected lower house of parliament, or Chamber of Deputies, has 120 seats, including 12 allocated for Christians and other minorities. Twelve others are set aside for women.

Parliament has the power to dismiss Cabinets and block state-proposed bills. But the king, who commands absolute powers, can veto legislative bills, dissolve parliament and rule by decree.

Jamal Halaby

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