Jordan's King Embraces Pluralism

Accord with opposition on pluralism widens monarch's acceptance - and the political system

By , Special to The Christian Science Monitor

THE legalization of political parties in Jordan marks a milestone in the Arab world's moves away from authoritarianism toward more representative government. Analysts here say the June 9 ratification of a "national charter," which allows for a pluralistic system, is also a coup for King Hussein, who has managed to secure the allegiance of political rivals and undermine other Arab nations' chances of intervening in Jordanian affairs.

"The approval of the charter by the major political trends practically implies that they no longer oppose the regime, but accept [being] an opposition within the system," one analyst says.

But most significant, says historian and analyst Kamel Abu Jaber, the national charter "has given birth to a new sort of legitimacy that depends on the democratization process."

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Under the terms of the charter - mithak, in Arabic - political parties will be legalized in return for opposition recognition of the Constitution, which stipulates that Jordan is a Hashemite monarchy. (The Hashemites attained power 70 years ago with British backing in what was then the mandate of Transjordan.)

Though the Jordanian opposition has not constituted a serious threat apart from two short spells in the 1950s and 1970s, acceptance of Hashemite rule is dear to the government. Most opposition groups have long implied rejection of Hashemite rule and advocated the establishment of "a nationalist democratic regime."

Pan-Arab and leftist groups, which reached their peak in the mid-1950s, saw Hashemite rule as "a British creation." But over the decades, Hussein has prevailed through a combination of suppression of political activities, delicately balanced foreign and Arab policies, and, finally, sweeping democratization measures.

In 1989, Hussein launched the democratization process - holding parliamentary elections and relaxing restrictions on political freedoms - but only after protests had swept the south, the bedrock of Hashemite support.

Until then, solid backing from the traditionalists, influential tribes, and the conservative Muslim Brotherhood (the only political organization that was tolerated by the regime as a counterweight to radicals) kept Hussein's rivals at bay. The 1989 protests were sparked by price increases. Decisionmakers apparently saw the unrest as a warning that the country's stability might be endangered without broader popular representation.

Since then, Hussein, viewed by some Arabs as too dependent on Western support, has increasingly relied on wider national consensus. His policies during the Gulf crisis, when he refused to join the United States-led coalition against Iraq, greatly increased his popularity at home and consolidated his image as a national leader.

But the historic turning point, say officials and opposition activists alike, was the ratification of the national charter this month, when erstwhile rivals pledged allegiance to Hussein as the leader of "a democratic Jordan."

A leftist leader dismisses any apparent contradiction between the opposition's long-declared slogans against the regime and its present support for Hussein.

"We were never trying to topple the regime. We were seeking pluralism, popular representation, and political freedoms," says Tayseer Zabri, leader of the Jordan People's Democratic Party.

"We were not sensitive to the kind of regime [the monarchy], but to the system of ruling. We believe that the mithak has laid the basis for a more balanced pattern and for pluralism," adds Mr. Zabri, who spent 10 years in jail in the 1970s for his political actions.

Hussein, who still recalls the 1950s, when the Jordanian opposition was influenced by radical Arab states such as Syria, Iraq, and Egypt, has warned he will not tolerate parties with links with other Arab governments.

"Every political party that comes to life in democracy and under its protection must necessarily be a national party in its basic tenets, objectives, methods, funding, and affiliation," he said in a speech after ratifying the charter. "Any departure from this fact would not only be a violation of democracy but an act against the nation."

Jordan's political groupings have agreed to this condition, which will weaken the influence of Arab neighbors and the Palestine Liberation Organization.

Despite support for the charter, critics - including Islamists and leftists - claim the palace has coopted the opposition without giving enough in return. They cite the government's failure so far to completely remove martial law, in effect since 1967, and other emergency laws. They also express concern that the government will use the charter to control the formation of parties.

But other analysts say the charter's acceptance is crucial to guarantee the success of the democratic experiment as it reflects a national consensus among the various ideological trends.

According to Dr. Abu Jaber, the charter proves that Jordan can contain various groups and prevent violence that might hamper democratic experiments: He uses recent clashes between the government and fundamentalists in Algeria as an example.

"Jordan could serve as a model in the region for dialogue among the various trends," he suggests.

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