Jordanians vote for new parliament

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AMMAN: Jordanians began voting Tuesday for a new parliament after a campaign that focused on concerns about the economy and anger at Israel over stalled peace talks.

Pro-government politicians, particularly tribesmen with strong ties to the king, are expected to sweep the election because the largest opposition group, the fundamentalist Islamic Action Front, is boycotting to protest voting rules it calls unfair.

That means that any criticism from the new parliament over King Abdullah’s strongly pro-Western policies or pressure from lawmakers for him to be tougher with Israel will likely only be cosmetic.

In Jordan, the king has the final word on all matters.

Prime Minister Samir Rifai has been desperately trying to get out the vote as a step toward democratic reforms in the pro-American Arab kingdom.
"Those who don’t vote are giving up their rights," he said.

But voting got off to a slow start, with only a handful of voters outside polling stations in some Amman districts.

Turnout is "likely to be low because many people have lost confidence in parliament, which they see as a rubber stamp to government policies," said Mohammed Masri, a political science professor at the University of Jordan.

Amman clothing shop clerk Mohammed Dallal, 40, said he wasn’t voting because he was "fed up with lawmakers lying to us. They promise us things, but when they get to parliament, they forget."

In all, 763 candidates, including 134 women, are vying for votes from a 2.4 million eligible electorate over the age of 18 in this Arab nation of 6 million.

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.

Anti-government candidates have charged that Jordan is not showing enough opposition to Israeli policies, feeding on 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 fear is palpable in Jordan, where Palestinians number about half the country’s population of 6 million.

"Resisting the Zionist entity (Israel) and abolishing the Jordanian-Israeli peace treaty is a national duty," proclaimed the banners of a leftist candidate, Khaled Ramadan, whose official campaign slogan is "Israel is the enemy." Israel and Jordan signed their peace treaty in 1994.

Economic issues have also been prominent.

Colorful banners and campaign posters promise better economic conditions in the resource-barren kingdom, which relies heavily on US aid to keep its ailing economy afloat.

"Putting food on the table is our national priority," declared one banner, while another read: "Corruption, poverty and hunger are red lines."

Jordan has an unemployment rate officially put at 13.3 percent and some 16 percent of the population are living on state welfare or help from their extended families.

Islamists are boycotting Tuesday’s vote over a new election law they claim has devalued votes in cities, where Islamic groups are traditionally strong.

Nearly 80 percent of Jordanians live in urban areas, according to a CIA survey, but support for the king comes mostly from desert regions.

"The election law has sidelined all the vocal critics of the government," said Jamil Abu-Bakr, a spokesman for the Muslim Brotherhood, Jordan’s largest opposition group. "The election is far from being fair and honest, considering reports of fraud we’re hearing."

Critics charge that the government is helping some candidates by persuading civil servants to vote for them. Other charges suggested that wealthy candidates were buying the votes of the poor.

"These are street rumors, which have no basis," said Election Commission spokesman Sameeh Maaytah.

Les Campbell, the regional director for the Washington-based National Democratic Institute for International Affairs, said it was "difficult to verify the allegations."

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