Jordan Doubts Its King

Next Tuesday's elections, colored by press restrictions, opposition boycott, fraud charges, to test democracy.

The banners have been hung, the posters of smiling politicians have been plastered to walls, and opposition candidates have already begun to cry foul in Jordan's upcoming Nov. 4 parliamentary election.

From the outside, it looks like one of the Arab world's most progressive regimes is still moving forward. But Jordanian and Western analysts are wondering if Jordan's democratic experiment isn't being reined in to ensure the uncontested rule of King Hussein's Hashemite monarchy.

The vote comes at a tricky time for the king, even as he plays a key role in keeping the Middle East peace process alive.

Peace with Israel has become a tough sell. And Jordanians have also become increasingly disillusioned: The gap between rich and poor has grown, a promised bonanza from Jordan's 1994 peace deal with Israel has never arrived, and parliament is often seen as little more than a rubber stamp.

Building democracy as Jordan's middle class is "disappearing," says a senior Western diplomat, may prove "impossible."

An opposition boycott led by the Islamic Action Front reflects widespread skepticism, says a Western diplomat. "Will the boycott hurt the king?" he asks. "No. But it hurts his image as a democrat."

Critics also point to tough new press restrictions, an electoral system that favors rural tribal candidates over more sophisticated city dwellers, and new charges that thousands of voter cards have been issued to a few individuals - or long-dead voters.

One local analyst notes that the king first introduced democracy to Jordan in 1989 to end riots sparked by a steep hike in food and fuel prices. The atmosphere during the next poll in 1993 was still optimistic, but for many voters it has soured.

"The king thought a controlled democracy would get him out of a tight situation, and that when he was stronger he could shape it the way he wanted," says the analyst, who asked not to be named. "The bottom line is that he wanted to crack down on this democracy, which got out of hand."

Jordan is often held up, with Egypt, as an example of a democratic oasis in a regional desert of regimes marked by authoritarian rule. To preserve that image, King Hussein recently traveled the country for two weeks telling people that they "must vote - your country needs you."

Diplomats say a large turnout is important for the credibility of the regime, but expect it may be as low as 30 percent.

"Jordan gets good coverage of its democracy - more credit than it deserves," says one. "But democracy is really at an early stage here. The government is selected by the king and very weak. Parliament can be either an irritant or a safety valve, but no more."

Among the most controversial signs were the amendments made in May, by royal decree, to the press law. In a report this week, the London-based censorship-watchdog group Article 19 called the changes a setback, signaling a "return to the darker days of closer state control."

"Undemocratic methods of control have been used, which give the impression that there has been a regression since 1993, but there hasn't been," says Mustafa Hamarneh, director of the Center for Strategic Studies, University of Jordan.

"Democrats had hoped for a more progressive system, but we got a third world model in which people vote for their tribes, not political parties," he says.

Still, Mr. Hamarneh adds, "the king has tremendous political capital. He's a combination of two personalities: He is the sheikh, father figure ... and he can be a very sophisticated world leader who talks to [Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin] Netanyahu and President Clinton in clear terms they can understand."

Even so, critics don't pull their punches. Leith Shbeilat, a respected Islamist and engineer whose tough words have twice put him behind bars, calls the whole set-up a "facade."

"There is no democracy in Jordan, because in a democracy people control their destiny," he says. "This is a one-man show. We're in a crisis with people getting poorer, and there is very widespread discontent. It's not a question of changing the monarchy, but I want the people to rule...."

Toujon Feisal, Jordan's only woman member of parliament and a vocal opposition figure, is running to hold onto her seat, despite claims of "massive forgery" of voter cards and lists that she says mean that "either the government is totally incompetent or totally corrupt."

"You don't quit because you don't conquer the whole territory in one go," says Mrs. Feisal, who is among 17 women candidates out of a field of some 550 running for 80 seats. "I can't turn my back because of what I've seen," she adds.

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