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Jordanians Hold Parliamentary Election - 2003-06-17

Voters in Jordan are going to the polls to elect a new lower house of parliament. Turnout is expected to be relatively low, but election officials say they are pleased by the way things have gone.

In the impoverished neighborhood of Ashrafyeh, voters had to weave their way through a large crowd of people doing last-minute campaigning outside the polling station.

Many of the chanting campaigners are children, wearing headbands and waving cardboard signs bearing the various candidates' photos and names.

But the group also includes young men wearing yellow-and-white T-shirts, and fully veiled women in flowing black robes. They press tiny campaign cards into would-be voters' hands, urging them to vote for the candidate pictured on them.

A small but steady stream of voters trickles into the polling station. Men go upstairs to cast their ballots, while women report to voting rooms on the ground floor.

They have a dizzying array of candidates to choose from, more than 20 people are on the ballot in this district.

The scene is a little quieter outside polling stations in the more affluent neighborhood known as Fourth Roundabout. But the candidates' friends and allies are still there, greeting voters as they arrive and hoping to win a few last-minute converts.

"Because first, he is my uncle, and second I think he is a good man, and he has good ideas to be in the parliament," said 16-year-old Amr Musharbash, who was handing out campaign flyers for his uncle.

"Some did not respond and did not take," he answered when asked how have people responded when he hands them the card. "Some take and put them in their pocket. Some tell me o.k., we are going to vote for him," he added.

It has been seven years since Jordan's last parliamentary election, and the country has functioned for the past two years without a parliament. King Abdullah dissolved the last legislature after its term ended in 2001, but said he postponed the election because of instability in the region.

Jordan has introduced a new quota system, which reserves six seats in the lower house for female candidates. Only one woman has been directly elected to parliament here before, and the last legislature had no women at all.

Political analyst Uraib Rantawi says the new women parliamentarians will face some unique challenges, but he thinks the quota is a good development.

"For the first time we will have six elected women in the coming parliament, which is a step forward, I do believe," he said. "It helps women empowerment, and participation in the political life in Jordan."

Another key development in this election is the almost certain return to parliament of the Islamic Action Front. It is the political wing of the Muslim Brotherhood, and is widely considered the most popular and well-organized opposition party in the country.

The Islamic Action Front boycotted the last election.

But party Secretary General Sheikh Hamzeh Mansour says it decided to participate in this poll for one main reason.

"The party decided to run in this election to oppose the policies of the United States in the region, especially the invasion of Iraq," he said.

The political analyst, Mr. Rantawi, believes the Islamic Action Front will win enough seats to make the party a major opposition force in parliament.

Overall, he expects opposition candidates to win at least a quarter of the 110 seats up for grabs in this election. He believes a strong opposition presence will strengthen the role of Jordan's parliament in the government system.

Preliminary results of the poll are expected late in the day.