AMMAN, Jordan — Jordanians voted Wednesday for a parliament with wider authority as the monarchy cedes some of its powers to try to prevent simmering dissent from boiling over into a full blown Arab uprising.
Most notably, the new legislature will be able to choose the prime minister, one of a series of reforms King Abdullah II has undertaken over the past two years to try to keep the lid on rising anger at home as political turmoil has swept across the Middle East. The reforms also make the elected legislature responsible for much of the nation’s day-to-day affairs, and allow for greater freedom of opinion and assembly. Foreign policy and security matters, however, remain – at least for now – in the hands of the king.
The 2011 Arab Spring uprisings in the region set off a wave of demonstrations in Jordan, although nothing on the scale of the protests that toppled autocratic leaders in Egypt, Libya, Yemen and Tunisia, let alone the revolt in neighboring Syria that has descended into a bloody civil war. Mindful of the turmoil around him, Abdullah has introduced the reforms at home in a measured manner, trying to manage the pace of change.
To that end, the king has touted the election as the first step on the path to greater democracy. His critics, however, have dismissed the vote as little more than a political ploy and argue that the monarchy will still retain its absolute powers. The country’s main opposition group, the fundamentalist Muslim Brotherhood, boycotted the election.
Authorities kept polling stations open for an extra hour to allow more people to vote. Independent Electoral Commission spokesman Hussein Bani Hani said initial figures put turnout at 56.5 percent of Jordan’s 2.3 million registered voters. He said the final percentage may be slightly higher after the data is fed to a nationwide computer system.
David Martin, the European Union Chief Election Observer, said voting got off to a relatively smooth start, with only one or two insignificant violations of rules due to campaigning outside polling stations, and “no intimidation or harassment of voters.” EU observers are stationed in all of Jordan’s 12 governorates, he said.
Prime Minister Abdullah Ensour, Jordan’s last appointed premier who is expected to tender his resignation to the king shortly after the vote, called the election a “stepping stone, or a station, on the path of more vigorous, serious, real and genuine reforms.”
“More democracy is coming,” he told reporters as he cast his ballot in his northwestern hometown of Salt.
But government critics, led by the Brotherhood, say the king’s moves do not go far enough or fast enough to end his monopoly on power. The Islamist group is boycotting the vote, as are four smaller parties, including communists and Arab nationalists, on the grounds that an electoral law introduced last year favored the king’s loyalists and undercut opposition votes.
“The parliament being elected has no color or taste in the absence of the opposition,” said Zaki Bani Irsheid, a leading member of the Islamic Action Front, the Brotherhood’s political arm. A statement by the Brotherhood’s youth wing described the elections as a “funeral for our national democracy.”
But the Brotherhood has been unable to tap into growing public anger over Jordan’s economic malaise, rising prices and corruption, in large part because of the deep distrust many Jordanians hold for the Islamist group. Some in Jordan have warily watched the rise to power of the Brotherhood in Egypt, where the Islamists swept to power in elections following that country’s own uprising, and fear the group could grab power in Jordan and throw it into instability.
The mixed mood in Jordan was apparent on Wednesday as citizens cast their ballots.
At one polling station at an Amman high school, Madallah Hamid, a 50-year-old government employee, said he was voting because he trusted the king’s liberalization moves.
“You don’t just press a button and suddenly you have reform and democracy,” Hamid said as he rubbed purple ink on his index finger, used to mark those who have already voted. “It’s a process and I have confidence in the king’s approach.”
But outside another polling station across town, convenience store clerk Mohammed Abu-Summaqa, 21, said he would not cast his ballot at all.
“Deputies will not be able to do anything for us because they are controlled by the king and Cabinet, so why should I vote?” he asked.
Julien Barnes-Darcy, a Jordan analyst at the European Council of Foreign Relations, said the elections fall short of the king’s initial promises to the public.
“There has been a sense that the reforms haven’t gone deep enough,” he said. “For that reason, the elections appear to many as much of a missed opportunity as anything else. ... They are neither the concluding moment of a period of reform, nor are they a launch pad for more serious change.”
“It really leaves the country in a bit of a standstill and at a problematic moment,” he added.