Jan. 23 (Bloomberg) -- Majeeda Saeed joined hundreds of Jordanian demonstrators at a rally before parliamentary elections today, holding an orange sign in front of her white face cover saying “We are Boycotting.”
Saeed, the 47-year-old director of a Koranic studies center, took to Amman’s Firas Square in response to a call from the Muslim Brotherhood, the largest opposition bloc in Jordan, to join a six-hour rally last week. The group, which is organizing the boycott, said the sit-in provided a foretaste of further street protests scheduled to follow the poll and designed to force the government into political change.
While the Brotherhood also shunned Jordan’s last election in 2010, this year’s vote comes amid a series of other challenges: the kingdom faces economic difficulties including lower aid from abroad, an influx of Syrian refugees, street protests about rising prices and a rise of Brotherhood-led governments in Egypt and Tunisia.
That’s led analysts like Oraib al-Rantawi, director of the Amman-based Al-Quds Center for Political Studies, to question what the new elected assembly will be able to achieve.
“I don’t think the elections will produce a representative parliament, one that mirrors the plurality in Jordan’s society,” he said. “The new parliament won’t change much.”
More than 1,400 candidates are running for the 150-seat assembly, with 123 elected for individual constituencies and the rest through a proportionally allocated national list, according to the Independent Elections Commission. About 300,000 of Jordan’s more than 3 million eligible voters had cast their ballots by 11:30 a.m., commission President Abdul Ilah Al Khateeb said today. The polls close at 7 p.m. local time and official results are announced tomorrow.
The outcome will be closely watched. Jordan is a key U.S. ally, one of two Arab countries with a peace treaty with Israel and has a Palestinian population, which gives it a stake in the stalled Middle East peace process.
The prospect of a weakened Jordan is a major concern for both Israel and the U.S., said Jacob Shapiro, an analyst at the Austin, Texas-based geopolitical consulting firm Stratfor.
“Jordan is a partner for both in the region, particularly for Israel, whose environment has grown increasingly hostile in the past year with the collapse of Syria and the rise of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt,” Shapiro added.
Jordan’s Brotherhood says it’s not seeking revolution. Asked why he had a picture of King Abdullah II on his office wall, Zaki Bani Irsheid, vice chairman of Jordan’s Muslim Brotherhood, said in an interview that the group wanted to reform rather than to topple the regime.
The Brotherhood has been a licensed political party in Jordan for decades, unlike its allied movement in Egypt, which was banned. Its members have won previous elections and have held ministerial posts in past Cabinets.
It issued the call for an electoral boycott because it says the king has offered too little change -- including a demand that he amend electoral law to allow half the chamber’s 150 seats to be chosen by proportional representation, Bani Irsheid said.
While no one in Jordan wants “the Syria model” and the group will avoid confrontation with police that might lead to violence, Bani Irsheid said the government will face sit-ins and other peaceful protests since the “power of the street has proven to be the most effective in bringing about change.”
“The boycott is an undemocratic act, especially since its aim is to make amendments to the constitution and the law that suits their own ends,” Prime Minister Abdullah Ensour said in an interview last week. Ensour said today he’ll submit his resignation once the elections are complete, the state-run Petra news agency reported.
Jordan has one of the smallest economies in the Middle East. It imports more than 90 percent of its oil and relies on foreign investment and grants to support public finances. In the past year, its economy has been under immense pressure -- Jordan received only 650 million Jordanian dinars ($916 million) in foreign grants last year, half the sum it received in 2011, Central Bank Governor Ziad Fariz said in an interview in Amman.
The drop “has put pressure on the budget and some pressure on the domestic market,” he said. In addition, there are close to 300,000 Syrian refugees in Jordan, straining its infrastructure, especially the scarce supply of water. Jordan’s energy bill has risen as gas supplies from Egypt dropped to less than half the 250 million cubic feet agreed on, forcing Jordan to buy more expensive fuel elsewhere.
Jordan is working with the International Monetary Fund on a $2 billion economic reform program that forced subsidy cuts on cooking and vehicle fuel that triggered occasionally violent public protests in November.
At least one protester was killed when he joined an armed mob storming a police station in the northern city of Irbid, more than 150 people were arrested and three banks in the northwest province of Balqa were robbed and burned, the government said at the time. The state was so short of money that it couldn’t pay for the cargoes carried by two fuel ships docked in the port of Aqaba, Ensour said in November.
The streets of Amman are bedecked with pictures of the candidates. Yet, many ordinary Jordanians express apathy, both for voting and for revolt. Among them were three female, 21-year-old university students having coffee at a café in the upscale Abdoun area one evening this month. “We don’t know who the candidates are and what they can do for us,” said Razan Hanna.
Asked whether the so-called Arab Spring that has toppled four leaders in the past two years wasn’t enough to inspire them, Mays Tamimi said: “Egypt hasn’t improved. It hasn’t been a good model.”
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