An Experiment in Jordan

WHILE one-party - or even one-man - rule is still entrenched in much of the Arab world, the winds of democracy are blowing there. Demands for freer political expression have been voiced in countries as diverse as Tunisia and Kuwait. But the most far-reaching ex-periment is Jordan's, where a royal commission is trying to redefine the relationship between ruling and ruled. The goals in Jordan, at least in the minds of many royal commissioners, include a more open political arena, an independent judiciary, and a government whose legitimacy is drawn from regular elections.

King Hussein initiated the process of change a year ago in response to riots in the usually loyalist southern part of his country. The immediate issue was a deteriorating economy, but demands for greater political freedom quickly followed. Hussein agreed to national elections, held last November. Turnout was small, and the fundamentalist Muslim Brotherhood - until recently Jordan's only legal political group - did well.

Still, the new government has begun dismantling Jordan's decades-old structure of martial law. Political prisoners have been released and press freedoms allowed.

The king has seized on the charter commission as a means of organizing - some would say controlling - the changes. The commission's work is likely to take a half-year, at the least. It will set basic ground rules for political life in Jordan: defining the nature and role of political parties; outlining economic priorities; strengthening the system of justice.

The issues will be thorny, and consensus among the 60 commissioners won't come easily. Members include individuals from all walks of Jordanian political life - centrist former government officials, long-banned leftists, and radical Muslims.

Their deliberations could help resolve differences that might derail Jordan's democratizing process - or even turn it toward violence. That's Hussein's hope, and his argument for pursuing the charter process even though it is seen by critics as duplicating, or superseding, the country's liberal Constitution.

In theory, the charter will bolster the Constitution - which has traditionally been overridden by measures passed to restrict its application - and open the way for new laws to solidify such freedoms as the formation of political parties.

Jordan's democratic brew has unique ingredients: a politically astute monarch who recognizes the time is ripe for change; an ailing economy overly reliant on foreign assistance; a population in the past divided along native Jordanian and Palestinian lines, but possibly ready, now, to unite in building democracy.

The experiment will be watched closely to see if a region given to wars and power rivalries can spawn a second democracy - Israel being the first. That, in itself, could alter some stereotypes about the intractable Mideast.

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