Voters in Jordan go to the polls Tuesday to elect a new parliament. For the first time, women candidates are guaranteed to win seats in the legislature. And after a seven-year absence, the country's main Islamist party looks likely to return to parliament in force.
Only one woman has ever been directly elected to the Jordanian parliament. The last parliament, elected in 1997, had no women at all in the lower house. But under the new electoral system, six seats are reserved for women, and Nadia Hashem Aloul is running for one of them.
She said Jordan has many highly educated, successful women in the business world. "So why not have women in parliament? As we know, parliament can affect Jordanian citizens' lives. Jordanian women are half of the society. So we need to have representatives, as women, in parliament," Ms. Aloul said.
Under the so-called quota system, women vie for individual seats in parliament alongside male candidates. If they get the most votes in their district, they win the seat outright. That is how 104 of the 110 seats will be awarded.
The other six seats are reserved for women. After the district seats are decided, election officials will compare the women candidates against each other. The six ladies who win the highest percentage of votes in their districts will also go to parliament.
Newspaper columnist and political analyst Uraib Rantawi said the attempt to get more women involved in politics is a step forward. "In the coming four years, we will see the women work in the parliament together with the men, and I think maybe it will change the attitude and the public's stereotyped image about women," he said.
The system has certainly worked when it comes to getting women to run for public office. More women candidates are running in this election than have run in all of Jordan's previous elections combined.
But analysts say most voters are relatively apathetic about this election, and turnout is expected to be low. By some predictions, fewer than 40 percent of the voters are expected to go to the polls.
Mr. Rantawi said there are several reasons for the apathy. He said voters are demoralized by the stagnant economy and recent developments in the region, particularly in Iraq and the Palestinian territories. He also blames Jordanian political parties for failing to energize the population.
"Political parties in Jordan, except the Muslim Brotherhood and their political party are very, very weak and do not have the ability to mobilize the public opinion in their campaign in order to elect their candidates," Mr. Rantawi said.
The Muslim Brotherhood's political wing is a party called the Islamic Action Front. It boycotted the last election in 1997, but it is widely considered to be the single most popular party in the country today. Mr. Rantawi and other analysts expect the IAF to form a strong opposition bloc in the next parliament. That, he said, is likely to change the way things work in Jordanian politics.
The IAF secretary general is Sheikh Hamzeh Mansour. He said the party decided to participate in this election for one main reason, so they can be a voice of opposition against the United States' policies in the Middle East, particularly its support of Israel and the invasion of Iraq.
He said lots of people support the party, and not just Muslims. And, he said, the support has grown since the war in Iraq, and because of U.S. support for Israeli President Ariel Sharon.
The Islamic Action Front's anti-American platform has struck a chord with many voters.
One man, who did not give his name, said Jordan's relationship with the United States was the main factor he considered when deciding who to vote for. He spoke through a translator
He said it was not really hard for him to choose a candidate because he is against America.
Although there is widespread support for the IAF, the party has plenty of critics as well. Twenty-year-old Cesar Abu-Rayyan has not yet decided who he will vote for, but it will definitely not be the candidate from the Islamist party.
He said he does not want the Islamic Action Front to win because they are fighting for unrealistic causes. He said they want to free Palestine and make Jordan an Islamic country, which is not going to happen.
No matter who wins at the polls, the new Jordanian parliament is likely to have plenty of work to do. Jordan has functioned without a parliament for the past two years. King Abdullah dissolved the last legislature at the end of its term in 2001, but postponed the election because of instability in the region.
Since then, the government has passed more than 200 temporary laws, and parliament will have to examine them and decide whether they should become permanent.