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Boycotted Jordan elections short on suspense

The main Islamic opposition group and other parties boycotted — not because the vote was rigged against them, but because they say parliament has become pointless.

November 10, 2010|By Borzou Daragahi, Los Angeles Times

Reporting from Amman, Jordan — The only suspense surrounding parliamentary elections here and in other Arab countries for many years has been over how many seats the opposition would be allowed to win.

But in Jordanian elections Tuesday, even that question was put to rest beforehand. The main Islamic opposition group and other parties boycotted — not because the vote was rigged against them, but because they say parliament has become pointless.

"There is a conviction that political reform through the elections is useless," said Zaki Bani Arshid, a leader of the Islamic Action Front, the country's main opposition movement.

A total of 763 candidates, including 143 women, vied for 120 seats in Jordan's parliament. They plastered telephone poles with posters and hung banners in squares. Radio and television commentators urged 2.4 million eligible voters to take part in what was officially dubbed a "national wedding." According to the government, 53% of voters cast ballots.

Campaign workers handed out leaflets. Security officials kept watch.

The only thing missing, critics said, was any substantive politics.

A brief flurry of American-promoted reform in the region has subsided. Since the Muslim Brotherhood performed better than expected in 2005 Egyptian elections and Hamas won 2006 elections in the Palestinian territories, international pressure for democratic change has eased. Governments have curtailed press freedoms and shut down civil society groups.

Results of the Jordanian elections were to be announced late Tuesday or Wednesday. But in the absence of party politics, well-known public figures or major issues of contention, the candidates were largely well-to-do and relatively anonymous businessmen looking to improve their standing, or tribal leaders seeking to consolidate power within their own groups.

"They want access, privilege, more of a chance to belong to the political elite, and to buttress their own positions within their own factions," said Radwan Abdullah, a retired political scientist.

Candidates curried favor with voters by playing on tribal or family ties, or promising patronage. They ran on slogans such as "Daughter of the nation" or "Tomorrow, a better life." Some bought votes with cash or gifts.

Turnout was as low as 34% in the cities.

"I want an election where I can vote on the powers from the top to the bottom," said Aouni Sharif, a 55-year-old teacher in the city of Zarqa, northeast of Amman. "This vote is not fair."

Turnout was higher in rural areas where voters supported their tribal elders.

"I voted for my candidate because I knew his father," said Mayada Nejad, a 37-year-old Amman homemaker. "He's clean."

Clashes in one southern town left at least one man dead, and police moved to quell stone-throwing matches between supporters of rival candidates in Amman, the capital.

Some analysts say the picture is not entirely grim. Jordan's elections three years ago were marred by the perception that the intelligence apparatus handpicked candidates.

The government this year expanded the number of seats available to urbanites, enlarged parliament by 10 seats, increased the quota for women and for the first time welcomed international election monitors, including the National Democratic Institute and the International Republican Institute.

"If the elections are an improvement on 2007, if the government conducts itself with transparency and integrity, then the resulting parliament has the potential to be more effective and other people might be drawn into running next time," said Les Campbell, Middle East and North Africa director for the National Democratic Institute.

Every Arab country now has credible human rights and domestic election monitoring organizations. Women have entered parliaments in Kuwait and other nations. Municipal councils in Yemen, Bahrain, Kuwait and Morocco have become lively forums for local issues. Women have made inroads in Saudi chamber of commerce elections.

"Democracy is not dying or dead," Campbell said. "They've tried to put a lid on it."

In Jordan and other Arab countries, however, the system prevents elected leaders from effecting change.

An appointed upper house here can invalidate the decisions of the elected lower house. And King Abdullah II directly or indirectly controls the government and the levers of the economy and the security apparatus.

Analysts offer several reasons why the Arab world's democratic development has stagnated, even compared with Muslim countries such as Turkey, Indonesia and Malaysia.

Lebanon and Iraq are viewed as the only Arab countries that have genuine elected parliaments with teeth, and both countries are very unstable. The Arab world watched as elections in even tiny, stable Bahrain last month sharpened differences between Shiite and Sunni Muslims.

Jordan and Morocco, as well as all the oil-rich Arabian Peninsula states, are monarchies. But many fear that Arab republics also are becoming hereditary autocracies. Syrian President Bashar Assad succeeded his father and the rulers of Egypt, Libya and Yemen are angling to put their sons in power.

Some blame the United States for backing corrupt regimes in the name of security and stability.

"If the West pulled its support, these governments would fall," said Arshid, the Jordanian opposition figure.

But Campbell said there has been a positive change in people's expectations over the last decade. "The discourse has changed," he said. "Even if they accept the repression because they have to, they don't like it."

daragahi@latimes.com

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