Jordanians vote for parliament, Islamists cry foul

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AMMAN, Nov 20 (Reuters) Jordanians voted today in parliamentary elections expected to consolidate power for tribal leaders, centrist and pro-government deputies, but the Islamist opposition complained that vote buying had marred the ballot.

Voters queued at polling stations to choose members for the 110-seat assembly. Voting is due to close at 2230 IST and most results are expected early tomorrow, interior ministry officials said.

Many of the 2.4 million registered voters are casting ballots on tribal and family lines in the second parliamentary election under reform-minded King Abdullah, who took the throne in 1999 on a wave of hope he would democratise the country.

''I am voting for my cousin who is a very respected man because I want a good representative of my tribe in parliament who can defend our interests,'' said Salem Hiyari at a polling station in the town of Salt, west of Amman.

Critics say this election, unlike the last in 2003, has seen influential politicians and business figures using patronage and vote-buying to maintain their hold. Stories abound of candidates promising anything from heaters to food in exchange for support.

Conservative politicians fear the Islamic Action Front, the largest political party and political arm of the Muslim Brotherhood, could make electoral gains like its ideological allies in the Palestinian territories and Egypt.

The IAF is reluctantly participating in elections it says are taking place under an election law where districts are tailored to counter its popular support.

ISLAMISTS COMPLAIN The head of the Muslim Brotherhood Salem Falahat accused the authorities of turning a blind eye to widespread vote-buying by influential conservative candidates whom the Islamists say are are covertly backed by the authorities.

''The government is reluctant to fight corruption and does not want to admit there is widespread vote buying that is turning people into slaves ... This is a crime against the country and has distorted the elections,'' he told Reuters.

The government has strongly denied allegations of fraud -- including mass transfers of voters by pro-government candidates to their districts, as well as either deregistration of likely opponents or multiple voting by government supporters.

The Islamists have also criticised the authorities' refusal to use indelible ink on voters hands to stop multiple voting.

Independent local non-governmental organisations have protested at a ban on their full access to polling stations.

Jordan's electoral system favours staunchly tribal constituencies over the largely Palestinian cities, which are Islamic strongholds and highly politicised.

Officials said turnout ranged from a high 70 percent in rural constituencies with small voters to a low of 24 percent in some heavily populated districts of Amman.

Observers said that suggested widespread disillusion with politicians viewed by many as corrupt or ineffectual.

King Abdullah hopes the election will bolster Jordan's democratic credentials as a close ally of the United States and has urged a high turnout. But many Jordanians say they have no faith in a parliament, which is viewed as a rubber stamp for unpopular laws that restrict public liberties.

REUTERS RSA KN2205

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