AMMAN, Jordan – From a podium at an Amman street rally, the leader of Jordan's Muslim Brotherhood vowed that soon the country would become a "state in the Muslim Caliphate," bringing cheers of "God is great" from the crowd of bearded, Islamist supporters.
It was extreme rhetoric, suggesting that the monarchy that defines this U.S. ally in the Mideast will disappear to be replaced by an Islamic state. The Brotherhood, the top opposition group in Jordan, usually avoids such bold strokes and insists on its loyalty to the king.
But the speech last week by Hammam Saeed points to how the heat is turning up in the country's simmering political confrontations as Jordan holds parliamentary elections Wednesday that the government touts as a milestone in a gradual process of bringing greater democracy.
King Abdullah II is trying to control the pace of change, ceding enough of his absolute powers to parliament in hopes of forestalling any Arab Spring-style uprisings like the ones that toppled autocratic leaders in Egypt, Libya, Yemen and Tunisia and devolved into a bloody civil war in Syria. But the Brotherhood and others in the opposition say his moves do not go far or fast enough to end his monopoly on power.
"The elections are a theatrical comedy, which we will not take part in," said Zaki Bani Irsheid of the Islamic Action Front, the Brotherhood's political party. "It is part of a royal gimmick to buy time and block any moves toward real and genuine reforms."
The Brotherhood is boycotting the vote, as are four smaller parties, including communists and Arab nationalists. But the Islamists' frustration is growing because they haven't been able to rally a large sector of the public to their side. Though there is anger over the economy, rising prices and corruption, many Jordanians also distrust the Brotherhood, eyeing its rise in Egypt and fearing it could grab power in Jordan and throw it into instability.
The protest Friday at which Saeed spoke was far smaller than expected, numbering only just over 1,000, despite the Brotherhood's boasts it would bring out tens of thousands to show the people's rejection of the reform program.
The government says the measured pace of reform aims to acclimatize Jordan to democracy. Constitutional reforms made last year by Abdullah start to edge the government out from under his total domination, handing more authority to the newly elected parliament. The Chamber of Deputies will now have a freer hand to draw up legislation, a stronger role in monitoring the Cabinet and for the first time lawmakers, not the king, will choose the prime minister.
An Independent Electoral Commission was created and tasked with supervising Wednesday's voting, taking over the responsibility for the first time from the Interior Ministry, which is in charge of security forces.
Last week, Abdullah signaled that he was ready to relinquish more 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. He didn't elaborate, but his comments raised speculation Jordan could eventually move toward a constitutional monarchy, with the king in a more ceremonial role.
Government officials said Abdullah wants to ensure an "effective" system of governance 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, saying it was the king's prerogative to announce such plans.
Prime Minister Abdullah Ensour cautioned that "change can't happen overnight. It will take a little bit of time." But he said the process of democratization was "carefully calculated, step-by-step, genuine and irreversible."
"Hard work will kick in a day after the elections, when the new parliament will elect a prime minister for the first time in Jordan's history," he told reporters. "More laws will be amended as we go through the path we have chosen."
With the opposition staying out of the race, the next parliament is likely to be a mix of independents with little political experience and pro-king conservatives, as previous ones were. The Brotherhood says it is boycotting the polls to protest an election law it says is biased in favor of Abdullah loyalists. The government insists it has adopted a globally recognized election system and that the Islamists' alternative would inflate their representation.
Turnout Wednesday among the 2.3 million registered voters could be a key measure of how much trust or enthusiasm the public feels for the reform program. The Commission said 1,425 candidates, including 191 women and about 139 former lawmakers, are vying for seats in the new, 150-member lower house of parliament.
The king has said the next steps will be to build real political parties. He wants to streamline Jordan's 23 small and fractured political parties into three or five coalitions based on ideology — right, left and center — for future parliamentary elections. Currently, votes are usually cast on the basis of tribal affiliation and family connections, producing successive parliaments dominated by pro-government, conservative tribal politicians. Although Jordan's multiparty system was revived in 1991, following a 35-year ban prompted by a 1956 leftist coup attempt, opposition parties remain unable to chart clear programs, claiming they are intimidated by tight scrutiny and security crackdowns.
Reform laws introduced in the past two years eased restrictions on the freedom of speech, opinion and assembly, but it is still taking officials time to interpret or implement them. Regulations were also revamped to allow for transparency, rehabilitate a public sector marred by bureaucracy, nepotism and corruption and rebuild public confidence in state institutions.
So far, a powerful business tycoon and an ex-intelligence chief were sentenced to jail in separate corruption cases. Prosecutors are also investigating an additional 100 corruption cases involving serving and former officials.
The Brotherhood vows to continue opposing Abdullah's policies through "peaceful" street protests and will attempt to rally the next parliament to oppose the reform program. It insisted it will not resort to violence to grab power.
"We will not relent until our demands are met," said Islamic Action Front secretary-general Hamza Mansour. He said the demands included rewriting the constitution to give parliament equal powers to the other two branches of authority, namely the executive and the judiciary. Mansour said while his group does not advocate "toppling the monarchy, we want to see the king taking a step back to allow parliament to share in the decision-making process."
Abdullah has faced little public criticism at home since he ascended to the throne in 1999. After the Arab Spring's eruption in late 2010, Jordan has seen frequent but smaller protests than elsewhere in the Mideast. However, last November, a small group of Jordanian activists blamed the monarch for a sudden jump in the prices of gas and fuel and called for his ouster in unusually violent street protests in which three people were killed and dozens were wounded.
Jordanians were divided over the elections.
"It's an exciting political process, which will show a new face to Jordan as it peacefully transforms itself into a full-fledged democracy with not a single drop of blood shed," said construction engineer Emad Nafaa, 42.
But Amman nurse Aida Abu Odeh, 32, said the reforms are cosmetic. "Historically speaking, nobody enjoying power would suddenly decide to give it up."