AMMAN, Jordan (AP) — Jordanians voted Wednesday for a parliament with wider authority, as the king cedes some of his powers to try to prevent simmering dissent from boiling over into a full blown Arab Spring uprising.
The new legislature will choose the prime minister and run day-to-day affairs, powers that used to reside with King Abdullah II. Foreign policy and security matters remain in the hands of the king. Abdullah has introduced the reforms in a measured manner, trying to manage the pace of change.
Critics charge that the reforms are too mild and the election is not enough of a change. The main opposition group, the Muslim Brotherhood, boycotted the voting. The 2011 Arab Spring uprisings in the region set off a wave of demonstrations in this usually placid U.S. ally. They have included unprecedented calls for the king to step down, raising alarms about the depth of the unrest.
The protests in Jordan have not been on the scale of the uprisings that toppled leaders in Egypt, Libya, Yemen and Tunisia, or the bloody civil war in neighboring Syria. Nearly 300,000 Syrian refugees have fled to Jordan, some suspected of links to the Syrian regime. Some in Jordan worry that they could be a destabilizing element.
At a polling station at an Amman high school, Islam Qandil, 29, wearing an Islamic niqab covering her whole face except her eyes, said she didn't agree with the opposition boycott. The opposition has "the right to express their views, but the rule in Jordan is fair," she said, expressing trust in the king.
Outside another polling station across town, convenience store clerk Mohammed Abu-Summaqa, 21, said he would not cast a ballot. "Members of parliament will not be able to do anything for us because they are controlled by the king and Cabinet, so why should I vote?" he asked.
Because of the Brotherhood's absence, the next parliament is likely to be a mix of independents with little political experience and pro-king conservatives, as previous ones were. Nearly 1,500 candidates, including 191 women, ran for the 150-seat parliament. Woman have 15 seats reserved for them under a quota, and Christians, who make up 4 percent of the country's 6 million population, will get at least nine.
Polling stations stayed open for an extra hour to accommodate late voters. Independent Electoral Commission spokesman Hussein Bani Hani said turnout was about 56.5 percent of Jordan's 2.3 million registered voters, slightly more than the last election in 2010. Unofficial results were expected on Thursday.
The Brotherhood and four other smaller parties, mainly Communists and Arab nationalists, stayed away to protest an election law they see as biased in favor of Abdullah's loyalists. The government countered that the Islamists' alternative would inflate their representation.
"Today was a comedy," said Zaki Bani Irsheid, a leader of the Islamic Action Front, the Brotherhood's political arm. "How can you have elections without the opposition?" The Brotherhood has been unable to tap into growing public anger over Jordan's economic malaise, rising prices, poverty, unemployment and corruption, in large part because of the deep distrust many Jordanians hold for the Islamist group.
After the election results, the party winning a majority of seats will consult with other blocs and independents to pick a prime minister. Up to now, the king has appointed premiers. The elected prime minister will then choose his Cabinet.
Abdullah has said the next step will be to build better political parties. He wants to streamline Jordan's 23 small and fractured parties into three or five coalitions based on ideology for future elections.
Currently, people usually cast their votes on the basis of tribal affiliation and family connections, producing successive parliaments dominated by pro-government, conservative tribal politicians. Although Jordan has a multiparty system, opposition parties have been unable to chart clear programs, claiming they are intimidated by tight scrutiny and security crackdowns.
Last week, Abdullah signaled that he was ready to relinquish additional powers in the future. "The system of ruling in Jordan is evolving ... and the monarchy which my son will inherit will not be the same as the one I inherited," he told a French magazine. His comments raised speculation Jordan could eventually move toward a constitutional monarchy, with the king in a more ceremonial role. Abdullah, 50, has been in power almost 13 years.
Government officials said Abdullah wants to ensure an effective system in which mature political parties can fill a vacuum to be left by the monarchy stepping back from running daily affairs of the state. The officials insisted on anonymity because they were not authorized to brief reporters.
David Martin, the European Union's chief election observer, said the "electoral process seemed to be working well with no serious problems." He said EU observers were stationed in all of Jordan's 12 governorates.
Prime Minister Abdullah Ensour, Jordan's last appointed premier who is expected to turn in his resignation to the king shortly after the vote, called the election a "stepping stone, or a station, on the path of more vigorous, serious, real and genuine reforms."
"More democracy is coming," he told reporters as he cast his ballot in his northwestern hometown of Salt.
Associated Press Writer Dale Gavlak in Amman, Jordan, contributed to this report.