AMMAN // Jordanians voted yesterday for the first time since the Arab Spring uprisings began in 2010, testing King Abdullah II's unprecedented political campaign to allay public frustration and encourage voting.
The king had vigorously urged Jordan's 2.3 million eligible voters to cast their ballots for the 150-seat lower house of parliament, in part to repudiate the Muslim Brotherhood, which called for an election boycott.
The country's independent elections commission reported a 56.5 per cent turnout late yesterday. Scheduled to close by 7pm, authorities extended the deadline by an hour to allow more people to vote.
The voter turnout was high enough to be trumpeted as a success by the government, political observers said.
"Voter turnout was contrary to [low] expectations despite the calls for the boycott," said Mohammed Sweidan, an editor at Jordan's Al Ghad daily newspaper, adding that he would not have been surprised if the turnout had been below 50 per cent.
He said the Islamist opposition's attempt to rally Jordanians to boycott the ballot seemed "unable to influence" many voters, although he attributed high turnout in rural areas to tribal and family influences loyal to the monarchy.
Pro-monarchy figures and influential businessmen were expected to sweep the elections, which saw more than 1,400 candidates competing. That could blow back in the form of more frustration with King Abdullah, who has struggled to reinvigorate an economy saddled by corruption allegations and about Dh37 billion in debt.
For instance, it could galvanise the small but persistent nationwide protests that have flared for more than two years, calling for curbs to his power and efforts to tackle corruption. The protesters have grown angrier and bolder with their demands from the monarchy. In November, thousands took to the streets in the capital, Amman, to protest petrol price hikes.
The opposition dismissed yesterday's election after mounting a campaign of protests and strikes.
"This is a sham election whose results will only erode the credibility of the future parliament," said Zaki Bani Rusheid, deputy head of the Muslim Brotherhood.
Last Friday, the group rallied against the ballot in downtown Amman. Attendance, however, was less than 2,000, far below the turnouts at other Islamist-led rallies.
Analysts say the popularity of Jordan's Islamists has dropped recently, partly because of concern over the unrest that has affected Egypt under its new Islamist president, Mohammed Morsi.
King Abdullah, for his part, has been meeting with various activists from his secular opposition, requesting them not to join the Muslim Brotherhood in their boycott. Those at the meetings said the monarch also warned them of a potential power grab by Jordan's Islamists.
The Muslim Brotherhood rejects the accusations, saying the group supports parliamentary rule, which they believe has consistently been undermined by the authorities.
Labib Kamhawi, an independent analyst who lives in Amman, criticised the government for attempting to exploit a fear of Islamists, which he described as an attempt to weaken the Muslim Brotherhood by dividing it. "By doing this, the regime is actually empowering the extremists within the group by marginalising the moderates," he said.
But the king has pressed ahead in other areas, giving a number of media interviews and penning editorials explaining his reform agenda.
His government also is expected to receive a financial boost from $5bn in aid pledged in 2011 by the Gulf Cooperation Council. On Tuesday, the Abu Dhabi Fund for Development agreed to contribute Dh4.6bn to that fund, the UAE's state news agency Wam reported.
King Abdullah also has overseen political reforms in the past year, including forming the independent elections commission and altering the country's election law. The reforms include having the new legislature choose the prime minister, making it responsible for much of the nation's day-to-day affairs, and allow greater freedom of opinion and assembly. Foreign policy and security matters, however, remain in the hands of the king.
Critics contend that the changes to that election law were superficial. They say the law hinders the development of political parties and gives unfair advantage to the monarchy's rural-tribal supporters in parliament over Jordan's Palestinians, who form the majority of country's 6 million population and are the backbone for Muslim Brotherhood support.
"There are no agendas in candidates' campaigns. Their campaigns are emotionally driven, and are based more on personal relationships than they are on constructive programmes," said Sheikh Talal Al Madi, a former senator from a tribal area.
That sentiment was shared by Atallah Salim, 46, a government employee living in Amman who moonlights as a taxi driver to support four children. He boycotted the poll out of frustration.
"Everyone knows this isn't a serious election, and that's why I don't care about it," he said. "What we want is real democracy with leaders who actually know what we think. This election won't bring this."
* With additional reporting by Suha Philip Ma'ayeh and Reuters