Jordanian Conservatives Curb Democratic Reform

Despite king's commitment to democratization, political elites have instituted a ban on three leftist parties and proposed press restrictions

JORDAN'S halting moves to democratic rule are stumbling in the face of opposition from the kingdom's conservative political elite, local politicians and foreign diplomats say.

Less than a year from parliamentary elections that have been billed as the Arab world's first fully free vote in more than three decades, the government has banned three leftist parties applying for legal status, while the National Assembly is debating a restrictive law on the press that critics say would tightly curb democracy.

The moves have spurred criticism even within government ranks. If radical opposition parties are banned, "there won't be any balance," complains one senior official. "There will be centrist and conservative parties without giving any chance to the leftists."

Victims of the ban are more blunt. "It is impossible to say there is democracy in Jordan if our party is outlawed," says Ahmed Najawi, leader of the pro-Iraq Arab Socialist Baath Party.

"What does pluralism mean if you refuse to allow all parties to function?" echoes Tayseer Zabri, head of the Jordanian People's Democratic Party, which is associated with the Democratic Front for the Liberation of Palestine (DFLP), a radical Palestinian group.

Opinion among Jordanian political analysts is divided over how seriously the party bans and the planned press law will undermine the democratization process, which King Hussein has trumpeted as an example to his Arab neighbors since widespread rioting first prompted political reform here in 1989.

"The number of people inclined not to believe in the regime's good intentions is on the increase," warns Labib Kamhawi, a left-wing member of the Royal Commission that drafted the National Charter, setting out the path to democracy. "The problem is that the government opted for democratic transformation only as an exercise in international public relations."

Other observers take a more charitable view. "These are expected and natural bumps on the road to democracy," argues Rami Khoury, a prominent political commentator. "They reflect the fact that a lot of people here don't want to give up the power they have, and that a lot of the old guard people don't like democracy. They feel threatened by it."

Few Jordanians, even the government's most radical opponents, doubt that King Hussein himself is committed to leading his country to democracy, which he sees as the firmest foundation on which to build his royal Hashemite family's future and Jordan's stability.

But his Cabinet, the bureaucracy, the powerful security forces, and the political establishment as a whole are riddled with traditionalists who see no promise, only a threat, in democratic reforms.

"Many people who have been in government over the past 30 years, who have important positions in the government and in the bureaucracy, enjoy special privileges, such as fat commissions on government purchases, and they have no reason to benefit from democracy," Mr. Zabri says.

"It is clear from what has happened in the past few weeks that in order to make a qualitative leap forward toward democratization we need more democrats in power," adds Mustafa Hamarneh, director of Jordan University's Center for Strategic Studies.

Threats to the process have been evident since last summer, when two Islamist members of parliament were charged with subversion, only to be pardoned by the king after a badly mishandled trial that drew widespread condemnation.

Earlier this year, parliament began debating a new press law that one Western diplomat describes as "representative of the fact that this democratization process is slow, clumsy, and not going that smoothly."

Fiercely criticized by local journalists and by Article 19, a London-based press freedom watchdog, the law would forbid criticism of the royal family or the military, permit only members of the officially sanctioned journalists' association to write for newspapers, and force all journalists to reveal their sources in court.

Government officials defend the law - which they say is less punitive than the existing penal code - partly on the grounds that Jordan's press needs protection against the danger of bribery by foreign governments that would undermine its independence.

The same thinking governs the political parties law - under which three of the eight parties applying for registration so far have been banned - which prohibits Jordanian parties from maintaining links with foreign parties or groups.

Thus Interior Minister Jawdad Sboul banned the Communists and the Baathists because their names were similar to those of foreign parties, and because socialism and communism were said to contradict the Jordanian Constitution.

The People's Democratic Party, meanwhile, was refused legalization because its application "did not specifically undertake that the party would not take directives or orders from any outside state or group" such as the DFLP.

The three parties say they will appeal the interior minister's ruling to the High Court, which could overturn the decision or demand cosmetic changes to the parties' names and applications. And the man who introduced the press law when he was prime minister, Taher al-Masri, acknowledges now that "probably we included some articles that are against freedom.... We are indulging in self-criticism and reevaluation." Mr. al-Masri plans to have the law redrafted in a parliamentary committee.

But if these things do not happen, warns Mr. Hamarneh, a former advisor to King Hussein, "we might end up with a controlled and only partially free society, not a free society, and a few years down the road there will be a clash.

"The ancien regime types have to go," he insists. "The ball is in the king's court."

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