AMMAN Jordanians vote on Wednesday in parliamentary elections boycotted by the Muslim Brotherhood which says the electoral system is rigged in favour of rural tribal areas and against the urban poor.
In the kingdom's first general election since the Arab spring brought once-marginalised Islamists to power in several countries in the region, the government has promised free and fair polls and predicted a good turnout, despite the boycott.
"There are not two people in Jordan who are whispering that the government will interfere in the elections," Prime Minister Abdullah Ensour told Reuters this week.
The Islamist Muslim Brotherhood is the single most popular party in Jordan - with strong support in cities, especially among poorer Palestinians who live there.
Its boycott has reduced the election to a contest between tribal leaders, establishment figures and businessmen, with just a few of the 1,500 candidates running for recognised parties. Allegations of vote-buying are rife.
The result might hand more power to the tribal figures who are keen on maintaining costly state patronage that serves their interests but is resented by large parts of the urban poor who feel left out, politically and economically.
"There are no agendas in candidates' campaigns. Their campaigns are emotionally driven, and are based more on personal relationships than they are on constructive programs," said Sheikh Talal al-Madi, a former senator.
Sparsely populated rural and tribal constituencies, where pro-government tribes are strong, get a bigger weighting in parliament than the Palestinian-dominated poor urban constituencies where the Islamists find their support. Wealthier Palestinians with economic power tend not to vote.
"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.
Jordanians are voting amid economic gloom, with IMF-guided austerity policies that the government was forced to adopt last year to avoid a fiscal crisis after years of using government money on a bloated public sector.
Last November, steep fuel price rises provoked sometimes violent protests, showing that resentments about the cost of living and perceived government corruption can bubble up onto the streets in Jordan.
But in rural areas, like the village of Umm Jimal, near the border with Syria, there is stiff resistance to the Muslim Brotherhood's call to change the voting system.
"Our people would not accept in any way that anyone touches the institutions responsible for the protection of the country and its stability or security. These issues, they are not even worthy of discussion," tribal chief Saed Hael Srour said as supporters packed into his election tent.
Srour, a prominent lawmaker and former interior minister, said his constituents opposed the Islamists' demands to reduce the monarchy's powers or touch the state funds allocated to the security forces which mainly employs native Jordanians.
In the nearby village of Dafyanah, where most residents are either state employees or depend on state pensions, there are concerns about a lack of state jobs.
"I have a son who has not been working for the last two years and he has become a burden. I knock at government agencies who say we cannot employ you," said Abu Ahmad, a Bedouin who lives on a 250 dinar ($350) monthly army pension.
With voter apathy in the cities and the Islamist boycott, turnout among the 2.3 million eligible voters will test the system that a large chunk of Jordanians feel does not give them a voice.
(Editing by Robin Pomeroy)