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Critics of Jordan's king perform well in election

Thursday - 1/24/2013, 1:55pm  ET

Jordanians arrive at a school to vote in Amman, Jordan, Wednesday Jan. 23, 2013. Jordanians voted Wednesday 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. Parliamentary cards are seen on the ground. (AP Photo/Mohammad Hannon)

JAMAL HALABY
Associated Press

AMMAN, Jordan (AP) -- The surprise victory of 37 Islamist and other government critics despite an election boycott injects a degree of dissent into Jordan's newly empowered parliament. The king has portrayed the assembly as a centerpiece of his reform package, but the opposition says it's not enough and vowed Thursday to stage more street protests.

Initial results released Thursday showed the Islamists -- who are not linked to the fundamentalist Muslim Brotherhood -- and other opposition figures winning more than 25 percent of the 150-seat parliament, in sharp contrast to the outgoing legislature, which was almost entirely composed of the king's supporters.

Loyalists of King Abdullah II, however, will remain in control of the new legislature, claiming a majority of the seats up for grabs in Wednesday's parliamentary election -- touted as the start of a democratization process that will see the monarch, a close U.S.-ally, gradually hand over some of his absolute powers to lawmakers.

The new parliament will choose the prime minister and be responsible for running much of the country's day-to-day affairs, powers that previously resided with the king. Foreign policy and security matters -- for now, at least -- remain in the hands of Abdullah.

The 2011 Arab Spring uprisings in the region set off a wave of demonstrations in Jordan, prompting Abdullah to introduce the reforms at home to try to prevent the simmering dissent -- which has included unprecedented calls for the king to step down -- from erupting into a full blown revolt. But Abdullah has attempted to implement the reforms in a measured manner, trying to manage the pace of change.

Critics charge that the reforms are too mild and the election does nothing more than provide political cover for the king's continued rule.

Julien Barnes-Dacey, Jordan analyst at the European Council on Foreign Relations, said if a quarter of the lawmakers are indeed independent opposition figures, it could be a "positive step."

However, he said the absence of the Brotherhood, which is Jordan's largest and best organized opposition group, "leaves an important void" and perhaps a lack of legitimacy needed to "push through hard decisions" to be taken in the legislature.

Jordan's economy is ailing, and one of the most pressing issues to be addressed is rising energy costs. The government will likely have to tackle the problem by lifting subsidies on electricity, which is bound to trigger a public backlash. A similar price hike in gas and fuel in November sparked unusually violent protests in which three people killed.

According to unofficial full results released Thursday by Jordan's Independent Electoral Commission, 18 opposition Islamists, including two well-known independents, won seats in the new parliament. They are not members of the Brotherhood, which boycotted the polls to protest an election law it says favors the king's supporters.

About a dozen leftists affiliated with pan-Arab nationalist groups, who are vocal government critics, also won seats, as did 14 candidates from the moderate Islamic Centrist Party, comprising devout but somewhat liberal Muslim figures -- who ran on their party banner. They are expected to lean toward the opposition rather than the government in the legislature because their known public stances often differ with those of the state.

Two Brotherhood members who broke ranks with their party to contest the elections also captured spots in parliament.

Abdullah loyalists claimed the majority of the seats, but their haul fell far short of their 2010 parliamentary election performance.

Official results were expected soon, but no date has been announced.

The Brotherhood, which has led the public opposition to the king over the past two years, rejected the vote and its outcome, and vowed to more street protests and public gatherings in defiance of repeated appeals by the king to join the political process.

"The polls were rigged," said Hamza Mansour, a member of the Brotherhood's political arm, the Islamic Action Front. "Suddenly, the turnout jumped 20 percent in nearly the last three hours of voting, which is impossible by all means."

Mansour rejected suggestions that the group has been politically sidelined, saying "we are part of the people and we will remain in the street to press our demands for real reforms."

Despite the Brotherhood's allegations, observers from the Washington-based National Democratic Institute said there was "marked improvement in procedures and administration from past polls."

However, the group which had 50 observers from 29 countries stationed throughout Jordan, said there were shortcomings related to gerrymandering and that tribalism is encouraged over political party formation. It urged the king to work toward consolidating political parties along ideological lines so that future elections would veer from voting along tribal lines.

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