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Strong turnout in Jordan's elections belies deep-seated cynicism

Jordanians turned out to vote in record numbers in yesterday's parliamentary elections, but many, even those who voted, see the system as stacked against change.

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Jordanians arrive at a school to vote in Amman, Jordan, Wednesday. Jordanians voted yesterday in a first electoral test for their king's political reforms, while a boycott from his Islamist-led opponents cast doubt over whether the vote would quell two years of simmering dissent in the streets.

Mohammad Hannon/AP

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By mid-afternoon yesterday, Mohammad Audeh still hadn't decided if he was going to vote or not. He said he didn’t see anyone he wanted to vote for as he hung around outside the polling station, watching as, according to him, candidates tried to buy votes from the young people in the neighborhood.

Eventually Mr. Audeh said he might vote anyway, on the off chance that these elections would be better than the corrupt contests of Jordan's past.

"The King has taken a lot of interest, and he is following it up. And the USA [is watching]," he said. "It might be decent."

Based on preliminary results from Jordan's parliamentary elections yesterday, the big winner seems to be the regime. Despite an election process that observers say remains deeply flawed, there was record-high turnout, bolstering the government's contention that reform-minded Jordanians are still looking to the system, rather than the opposition, for change.

Final turnout figures have not yet been released, but according to an electronic database created by Jordan's new Independent Election Commission – one of the recent reforms – nearly 57 percent of registered voters had cast ballots at the close of polling yesterday.

The Islamic Action Front, the country's main opposition party, boycotted the polls and claims the turnout figures are inflated. But while election observers remain highly critical of the voting process as a whole, they say they found no evidence of state manipulation of the results. Independent local election monitors estimated turnout to be between 50 and 51 percent, but stopped short of attributing that difference to inflation by the state.

"In most of the centers, the number [of voters listed on the official figures] was correct," says Mohammed Hussainy, the head of the Integrity Coalition for Election Observation. "We say clearly that, by Independent Election Commission at least, there was no systematic fraud. But the chaos that happened in the last few hours [of polling] created the possibility for fraud."

The Islamic party, who did not deploy poll observers on election day, say evidence of fraud will eventually come out. "There are no secrets in Jordan, and I'm positive in two or three days, everything will be out. We just have to wait and see," says Nimer Al-Assaf, the Islamic party's deputy secretary general.

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He points out that even if the turnout numbers are correct, most Jordanians still did not vote – only 2.2 million of Jordan's 3.6 million eligible voters were registered, and turnout percentages are based only on registered voters.

Beyond voting

Local and international groups praised the elections commission cautiously, saying this voting process was significantly better than previous ones, which were dogged by numerous allegations of fraud. But all noted that the problems with Jordan's democracy run much deeper than the conduct at the polls.

The country's convoluted elections system makes some votes worth more than others, prevents political parties from winning seats, and generally slants representation in parliament toward regime-loyal tribal groups. New seats for political parties were introduced this election, but with the official opposition not participating, no party won more than a handful of seats, and most won only one.

Many of the national lists, observers say, were created by the same tribal groups who typically control parliament. The new legislature looks remarkably like the old one.

"So what is the point of these closed lists?" Asked Ghaith Al-Qudah, head of the Islamic Action Front's youth wing. "There's no actual political life.... There are no actual political blocs in this new house of parliament."

And despite new regulations, there were widespread allegations of the longtime practice of vote buying. Candidates' agents surrounded many of the polling centers yesterday, corralling groups of young men to go vote. In one east Amman neighborhood, they were even allowed inside. Numerous voters showed their completed ballots to the candidates' observers.

Mr. Al Assaf accused the state of tacitly allowing vote buying as a way to increase turnout in the election. "It was so obvious and so allowed, that they just wanted to raise the numbers voting," he says.

Entrenched cynicism

For now the government seems to have emerged victorious, but it remains to be seen how much the problems that still assailed the vote will affect Jordanians' perception of the new parliament and confidence in the state's reform promises.

"It goes back to the underpinnings of the electoral structure, which hasn't really changed ... you continue to have a situation where vested and entrenched tribal figures and power brokers are at an advantage," says Scott Mastic, the director of Middle East programs at the International Republican Institute, which sent election monitors to Jordan for the past two parliamentary votes.

At the polls yesterday, several said that if this election produced a decent crop of lawmakers, things might change.

"We feel as if, maybe, it's going to be a decent one," said Issam Rashid, who had just cast his vote at a polling place in Amman's Wihdat neighborhood, a former camp for Palestinian refugees. "This is the first time we've had an independent election commission."

But long-held cynicism also cropped up.

"The old [parliament], what they did is useless. All these people were useless, because they were doing something for themselves, that's all," said Samir Al-Neimi, a Jordanian who lives in Abu Dhabi, but who had come back to vote.

"I hope – but I don't believe in them."


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