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Amid regional change, Jordanians reluctantly vote for more of the same

A woman casts her ballot at a polling station in Amman, on Jan. 23, 2013. Polling stations opened on Wednesday in Jordanian elections boycotted by the Muslim Brotherhood, which says the electoral system is rigged in favor of tribal areas and against the large urban centres. (MUHAMMAD HAMED/REUTERS)

Jordanians turned out in higher-than-expected numbers Wednesday to elect a loyalist parliament in what officials hailed as a ringing endorsement of King Abdullah II’s gradualist approach to democratic reforms.

As polls closed at 8 p.m., officials announced that 56.5 percent of the country’s 2.2 million eligible voters had cast a ballot in the country’s first elections since the Arab Spring uprisings began more than two years ago.

Officials had privately predicted a turnout of 35 to 40 percent because of a boycott of the polls by the Muslim Brotherhood, Jordan’s largest political force.

“These results represent a success for the Jordanian people and a continuation of our march towards democracy,” said Samih Maaytah, a government spokesman and minister of media affairs.

Given the Islamists’ boycott, the elections became something of a referendum on the government’s deliberately paced strategy of implementing change, with Abdullah largely resisting pressure by a two-year-old protest movement to transfer to the people his authority to form governments.

“These results are proof that the Jordanian people are ready to make the next step and that we as a nation are on the right track,” Maaytah said.

Many voters, however, said officials should not misinterpret participation as endorsement of the status quo, with some saying they had headed to the polls reluctantly Wednesday out of a feeling of duty to politically involved friends and relatives.

Because of the Brotherhood’s absence and a complex electoral system favoring government loyalists, other voters said, they were forced to choose among the same tribal and pro-government figures who have dominated previous, corruption-riddled parliaments.

“In most elections in the world, people have the freedom to vote for the best representative,” Ahmed Tamimi, a 62-year-old retiree, said as he left a polling station in central Amman. “But in Jordan, we choose who is the least corrupt.”

Despite announcing this month that the incoming legislature will be given the opportunity to select the next prime minister, the king still retains his powers to dismiss governments and dissolve parliament and has yet to set a timeline for the proposed transition to a true parliamentary government.

To some Jordanians, Abdullah’s reluctance to cede key powers poses the greatest obstacle to efforts to bring about the kind of democratic changes that have swept the region.

“How can we ever change the status quo when we are constantly electing a parliament that has no power, no authority and no legitimacy?” said Ahmed Majali, a resident of the city of Karak who serves as a campaign adviser to his cousin.

The elections even drew criticism from Bedouins, a longtime pillar of the regime traditionally viewed as resistant to change, with many voicing disenchantment with a political system that encourages citizens to vote along regional rather than ideological lines.

“All Jordanians want real, experienced parliamentarians who can tackle corruption and stand up to executive authority and actually craft laws,” said Mamdouh al-Jazi, a candidate from the influential Hweitat Bedouin tribe. “But decision-makers are preventing us from moving forward.”

With the loyalist parliament set to convene next month, officials said Wednesday’s elections marked a new dawn for Jordan. Yet two years after popular uprisings began dislodging autocrats and altering the political landscape across the region, some Jordanians say elections alone are no longer a sufficient response to their demands.

“We are not demanding the right to vote,” said Ahmed Hussein, a 22-year-old university student who said he had boycotted the elections. “What we are demanding is something worth voting for.”

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