Jordan Stifles Campaign As Democratic Poll Nears

Government tries to curb societal split; Palestinians feel threatened

By , Special to The Christian Science Monitor

WHITE banners competing with commercial billboards on the busy streets of Amman and big campaign advertisements that splash the pages of the local newspapers are about the only outward manifestations of Jordan's first multiparty parliamentary elections since 1956.

An apparently nervous government has banned political rallies. Candidates have no access to local media. Instead, they must resort to private luncheons, small gatherings, and leaflets to reach out to their constituencies.

Jordan's elections were supposed to be the showcase of progress toward democracy in the Arab world, but the campaign here has become increasingly stifled since the Sept. 13 signing of a peace accord between Israel and the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO).

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The election restrictions are an attempt by the government to prevent the Nov. 8 poll from turning into a battle between opponents and supporters of the peace accord, many political analysts and former government officials say.

But the measures are deepening a split between Jordan's two constituencies as they assert their rights and privileges. The kingdom's 3.7 million population is about evenly divided between people of Jordanian and Palestinian descent.

Many Jordanians have called for the end of Palestinian influence in the kingdom. Many are concerned about regular Israeli references to Jordan as an already-existing Palestinian state, implying there is no need for one in the occupied lands.

Although King Hussein has publicly strived to reconcile the two constituencies since the signing of the peace accord, Palestinians and opposition members have grown increasingly uneasy with recent government moves.

Jordanian officials initially stated that Palestinians could lose their civil and political rights if they return to the Israeli-occupied West Bank and vote there. The Israeli-PLO accord establishes early Palestinian self-rule in the Gaza Strip and West Bank city of Jericho and could pave the way for the eventual return of some Palestinian refugees.

``Anyone who tries to encroach on our national unity ... will be my enemy till eternity,'' the king cautioned in a recent address.

Many interpreted the speech not only as an attempt to end social friction, but to preempt the flight of Palestinian capital from Jordan, especially as international campaigns have started to encourage investments in the West Bank.

As the election nears, analysts say, King Hussein seems to be falling back on his traditional basis of support - the strong East Bank tribes, the security apparatus, and the Army.

Although the lifting of martial law has allowed clandestine leftist and pan-Arab opposition groups, which have broad support among Palestinians, to expand, the electoral law is expected to produce a traditionalist, conservative parliament.

An amendment to that law introduced by the king two months ago stipulates one person, one vote.

Experts warn this could amplify tribalism and further dilute Palestinian votes, which usually tip the balance in favor of Islamists, leftists, and liberals.

Jordanian and Palestinian political analysts argue that the king is aware that many Palestinians are divided in their allegiance to the PLO leadership and the Palestinian opposition factions.

Thus, they argue, the king is attempting to secure a parliament that boosts his traditional constituency without ostracizing the Palestinians, in case the peace accord fails or Jordan is expected to play a major role in helping to establish Palestinian autonomy in the occupied territories.

Many Palestinians complain that the king's call for national unity contradicts practices on the ground.

``Jordanian citizens from Palestinian origin should have equal political rights, and there is no justifications for discrimination in the government department,'' says Labib Kamhawi, a political analyst and Palestinian businessman.

The strong Palestinian business community in Jordan has renewed its assertion for equal political rights.

Meanwhile, the curbs on political and press freedoms that have taken effect since the signing ceremony have taken their toll on those in Jordan who oppose the Israel-PLO deal.

Islamists, leftists, and pan-Arab nationalist parties, in particular, have been the first to feel the heavy hand of government.

The Islamists and the leftists have already complained of government interference in the campaign. The local press is finding it increasingly difficult to publish reports criticical of government policies or ``security excesses.''

The situation that prevails is very parallel to the constraints of the pre-1989 liberalization era, even though the king seems determined not to reverse the process.

But an increasingly tense atmosphere jeopardizes the democratization process and Jordan's role in the peace process, which many decisionmakers here feel is crucial to the kingdom's stability.

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