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Interest in Jordan's parliamentary elections goes up in smoke

In an attempt to placate voters angry about fuel price hikes, Jordan has lowered cigarette prices. But the two moves have overshadowed the key thing: voting in upcoming elections.

By Correspondent / January 9, 2013

A Jordanian pedestrian passes by a Jordanian parliamentary campaign poster, in Amman, Jordan, Jan. 3. The Arabic writing on the poster reads, 'the women of Jordan, from the field to the parliament.'

Mohammad Hannon/AP

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Amman, Jordan

Jordan is less than two weeks away from a parliamentary election, but the vote has been overshadowed by the government's recent fuel price hikes and decision to lower cigarette prices.

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Many Jordanians see the latter as either the government caving to business interests – a price floor made it difficult for manufacturers to compete – or an effort to distract voters from their dissatisfaction with the government as they prepare to go to the polls. A slash in government fuel subsidies late last year is hitting Jordanians hard in the pocketbook; a gas canister that used to cost 6.5 dinars now costs 10 (about $14).

The painful hike in cooking and heating gas took effect late last year, triggering days of demonstrations and prompting speculation that the Hashemite Kingdom might succumb to the popular unrest that upended governments in Egypt, Syria, and Libya, although those concerns did not materialize.

In what many see as an effort to placate angry, cash-strapped voters, last month the government approved lowering the minimum price of cigarettes, which are publicly regulated, to help manufacturers better compete with cigarettes smuggled over the border from Syria. The price for a pack of domestically made Marlboros dropped by 20 percent in December, from 1.8 Jordanian dinars to 1.4, and by the first week in January the prices of all locally made cigarettes had been slashed, reversing a trend from recent years in which Jordan's government raised taxes on cigarettes. A comparable pack of smuggled Syrian cigarettes costs 2.25 dinars.

Not everyone is buying it.

"Some people are suckers for that, you know? The economy is bad," says Madian Al Jazeera, the owner of Books@Cafe, a bar and bookstore where business is down as much as 40 percent since the gas price hikes, as Jordanians tighten their budgets. "Look around. No one is smiling. You don’t see the smiles, you see the spite in the street. People are on edge."

The government decision has also raised the hackles of the health ministry and other public health advocates for promoting smoking. The ministry opposed the decision on the grounds that it violated a World Health Organization convention on tobacco control.

Gas prices crowd out politics

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