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Jordan votes amid resentment over Syria refugee burden

Jordan goes to the polls for municipal elections on Tuesday with the strain of a massive Syrian refugee influx on an already struggling economy stoking voter apathy and resentment.

AMMAN // Jordan goes to the polls for municipal elections on Tuesday with the strain of a massive Syrian refugee influx on an already struggling economy stoking voter apathy and resentment.

The main opposition Muslim Brotherhood is boycotting the polls, charging that, despite repeated promises since the Arab Spring of 2011, there is no real readiness for change.

With few candidates of the leftist or nationalist opposition standing, tribal figures, who are the traditional bedrock of the monarchy, are set to sweep the elections.

But even loyalist candidates have expressed growing anger during the campaign at the failure of the central government to do more to help the towns that have borne the biggest burden from the influx of more than 500,000 Syrian refugees.

"The Syrian refugees are flooding Mafraq," said Amer Doghmi, running for mayor of the northern town whose 60,000 population has been swamped by tens of thousands of refugees.

"Our situation was already bad before they came. Now we are in dire need of help and the government is not doing what it should do," Mr Doghmi said.

Government and UN officials say the refugee influx has placed a huge burden on already overstretched water and power supplies as well as housing and education.

Jordan has very limited water resources and relies almost entirely on imports for its energy needs, placing a huge strain on its finances.

The government has announced a raft of austerity measures as it battles to reduce a Dh7.35billion deficit this year and rein in a foreign debt that now exceeds Dh84.5bn.

The government last month doubled taxes on mobile phones and their contracts, and plans are under way to raise the price of electricity by 15 per cent.

Jordanians, reeling from the price increases, are also angry about the impact of the refugee influx on unemployment.

According to the labour ministry, more than 160,000 Syrian refugees hold jobs in Jordan.

Analysts say public anger is likely to lead to low turnout on polling day and might spark post-election disturbances.

"It is obvious that people are not enthusiastic at all about the elections," said political analyst and researcher Hassan Abu Hanieh.

Analyst Oraib Rintawi, who runs the Al Quds Centre for Political Studies, said: "The tough economic situation in the country and the regional turmoil, particularly the crisis in Syria and its impact on Jordan, do not help citizens focus on the polls.

"In reality, there are no real and clear election campaigns or programmes in Amman and other main cities, while in the remaining regions, the competition is purely tribal," said Mr Rintawi.

The authorities have expressed fear that the election might stoke clashes as rival tribes compete for council seats.

"With the current general atmosphere, acts of violence are expected after the vote," said Mohammed Abu Rumman, political analyst at the University of Jordan's Centre for Strategic Studies.

"I think the timing of the election is bad. People care more about what is happening in Egypt and Syria, not to mention our own economic crisis," Mr Abu Rumman said.

In April, tribal rivalries led to armed clashes between students at the King Hussein bin Talal University in the southern city of Maan that killed four people and wounded more than 25.

Prime Minister Abdullah Nsur has urged voters to turn out.

"I call on all Jordanians to vote. Do not look for a reason to neglect your duty to vote," he told a news conference.

It is the second time in a row that the Muslim Brotherhood is boycotting a poll, after snubbing a general election in January.

It also pulled out of the last local elections in 2007, accusing the government of manipulating the vote.

"We will not take part in any election. We do not feel that there is real will for reform and change," Zaki Bani Rsheid, deputy leader of the Brotherhood, said.

Around 3.7 million Jordanians are registered to vote in the elections, in which they will pick 100 mayors and 970 municipal councillors from around 3,000 candidates in the country's 94 municipalities.

The electoral law reserves 297 municipal council seats for women.