AMMAN // Jordan's parliamentary elections on Tuesday are supposed to move the kingdom towards democracy, but voter apathy and a planned Islamist boycott is raising concerns about parliament's future legitimacy.
Some critics are predicting a low voter turnout compared to the 2007 election in the absence of the Islamists, parliament's main opposition party, as the country gears up for the election a year after King Abdullah dissolved the former legislature halfway through its four-year term in the face of a growing public dissatisfaction.
"If the voter turnout is low, it will raise serious questions about the legitimacy of parliament," said Mohammed Masri, a researcher at the Centre for Strategic Studies at the University of Jordan. "The public will think that parliament will represent only a minority. At the same time, it will harm Jordan's image abroad. Jordan is promoting itself as an open system.
"Indicators show voter turnout may be low and that is not only because of the Islamists' boycott, but mostly because there is political apathy. Many are not enthusiastic because they do not believe that things will change. They do not see parliament as a driving force of change."
The influential Islamic Action Front, the political arm of the Muslim Brotherhood, is boycotting to protest against a new electoral law they say is designed to deprive them of votes. They also object to what they consider a gradual loss of democratic gains and civil rights.
The government, however, is eager to persuade citizens to vote in the election, which it says will be transparent and impartial. It has taken various measures to ensure transparency, such as allowing, for the first time, international organisations to monitor the election. It has also introduced penalties for those who attempt to sell and buy votes.
In its latest attempt to encourage voters, it urged the country's mosques last week to have clerics promote voting as a religious duty.
Samir Rifai, the prime minister, told teachers and clerics that voting was "not only a constitutional obligation but an opportunity to change for the better".
He said their role was key to encouraging citizens to participate in the election.
Nonetheless, tensions are evident. Last month, authorities banned activists from staging an election boycott rally. Eleven people from the youth office of the leftist Popular Unity Party were detained.
Campaigns, however, are gathering steam with 763 candidates vying for 120 seats. They have pitched tents across Jordan and put up posters focusing on freedom, reform and Palestinians' right of return.
Jordanians are mainly concerned about the economy. Even the affluent are complaining about the rising prices of commodities.
"Prices are going up and what we need now is a parliament that can do something about our salaries. It should also subsidise basic commodities," said Dayana Zayer, a housewife.
Many candidates from the previous parliament are running again. Most candidates are counting on the support of their tribes.
"I am going to shoulder your burdens and fulfil your aspirations. I suffer just like you," Raed Abbadi, a candidate, told supporters at his tent in Amman recently. "This is my oath that I have taken since I was named as the candidate from my tribe."
Some observers doubt the new parliament will be different than its predecessor as the boycott may result in dominance by government loyalists.
Jihad al Mansi, a correspondent with the Al Ghad newspaper, said: "While the government is doing its best to encourage voters' participation, the coming parliament will be a carbon copy. The vast majority of the former members of parliament are running again and they are likely to succeed because there have been no major changes in the electoral law."