Jordan unrest brews despite pro-king poll

Jan. 24, 2013 at 3:54 PM
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AMMAN, Jordan, Jan. 24 (UPI) -- Tribal candidates loyal to King Abdullah II scored heavily in contentious Jordanian parliamentary elections that were intended to quell swelling discontent and once-unthinkable criticism of the Hashemite monarchy.

But since the main opposition, the Islamic Action Front, and four smaller parties boycotted Wednesday's polling, the election is unlikely to ease mounting pressure for major democratic reforms, which the king has promised but repeatedly put off amid economic woes.

The IAF claimed Jordan's electoral law, revised by the last tribal-dominated Parliament, was stacked in the loyalists' favor and designed to curb opposition influence.

Final figures have yet to be announced but Election Commission officials said 1.3 million Jordanians -- 56 percent of the 2.3 million registered voters -- went to the polls, the first to be overseen by an independent commission.

Political analysts suggested Abdullah could use his loyalists' domination of the 150-seat Parliament to deflect public criticism that is including calls for the monarch to step down.

But that's not likely to be enough to head off a new wave of street protests when the government will have to increase recent austerity measures, possibly including scrapping fuel subsidies, to tackle the resource-poor kingdom's growing economic crisis.

When the king hiked fuel prices in November, Amman and other cities were swept by riots that forced the government to restore subsidies that kingdom's treasury can ill-afford.

"Amman's limited financial resources, the threats to its energy supply and an increasingly complex, domestic political situation will further complicate efforts to deal with those issues," the U.S. global security consultancy Stratfor observed.

The expected protests will be spearheaded by the IAF, political arm of the Jordanian chapter of the Muslim Brotherhood that rules Egypt -- a prospect that causes many of Jordan's population of 6.5 million to tremble.

Government officials said Wednesday's election was a milestone in democratic reforms but the IAF dismissed it as cosmetic and desperate bid by a beleaguered absolute monarch to head off having to surrender most of his power.

The king vowed the elections would "breathe life into our democracy."

Abdullah Ensour, Jordan's fourth prime minister in two years, declared the polling marked "dramatic progress toward democracy" two years after the Arab world was convulsed by the pro-democracy uprisings of 2011 that toppled four dictators in eight months.

Abdullah hasn't had to contend with the same level of popular pressure that toppled once-unassailable regime but the worsening discontent and disillusionment on the streets has raised deep concerns about the survivability of a key Western ally.

The ongoing political earthquake has plunged Jordan's northern neighbor Syria into a 22-month-old civil war that is steadily spilling over into the desert kingdom as it is in Iraq, Turkey and Lebanon.

"The rule of the people is coming," Hammam Said, leader of the Muslim Brotherhood, told demonstrators in the run-up to the voting.

"The people will continue to demand regime reforms until the regime realizes that there is no room for procrastination."

Not so long ago, Jordanian security services would have carted him off to prison for such inflammatory rhetoric but these days the establishment is very much on the defensive.

Abdullah seems to be resigned to having to relinquish much of his power if the monarchy is to survive, likely as a constitutional monarchy with political power invested in Parliament, which the Muslim Brotherhood is likely to dominate.

He recently indicated he's prepared to hand over some powers, although he didn't say when, and hinted at a constitutional monarchy.

"The system of ruling in Jordan is evolving ... and the monarchy which my son will inherit will not be the same one I inherited," he told a French magazine.

Jordan's crushing economic crisis, triggered in large part by the loss of energy supplies from Egypt and Iraq, has been worsened by the influx of more than 200,000 refugees from Syria, with more flooding in every day.

This, and the region-wide surge for political reform, has intensified the pressure on Abdullah, who ascended the Hashemite throne, established by the British after World War I, after his widely revered father, King Hussein, died in February 1999.

Parliamentary elections in 2007 and 2010 were marred by extensive allegations of vote-rigging by Jordan's powerful intelligence services, a pillar of the monarchy, and produced toothless parliaments that quickly collapsed.

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