Jordan elections give voice to fundamentalists, women, and youth

The results of Jordan's first elections in 17 years indicate both a rise in Islamic fundamentalism and a newly powerful political voice among women and youth.

Jordanians cast their votes Monday to elect eight deputies from a field of 102 candidates to vacant seats in the lower house of parliament. Turnout was heavy with some 500,000 of Jordan's 558,000 registered voters casting ballots.

King Hussein suspended parliament in 1974 when an Arab League resolution recognized the Palestine Liberation Organization as the sole legitimate representative of the Palestinian people. The majority of residents on the Israeli-occupied West Bank of the Jordan River are Palestinian.

Three of the deputies elected ran on a platform of fundamentalist Islamic principles. However, both Jordanian and Western analysts caution that it is difficult to assess the election's outcome.

First, it was a by-election, rather than a general election. And second, with such a crowded field, successful candidates won by a plurality. In Amman, for example, 36 people contested one seat. Leith Eshbeilat, an Islamic fundamentalist, won with only 20 percent of the vote.

The election also represented a quantum leap for Jordanian women who were allowed to vote for the first time. It is uncertain whether they were able to vote freely since many women, especially those from rural areas, are reluctant to oppose their husbands. Wives who challenge their husbands risk the threat of divorce and may lose their respectable standing in society.

Nevertheless, candidates did make an appeal to women. The candidates stressed the need to offer equal opportunities in education and employment. They also stressed the need for adequate day-care facilities.

The candidates appealed as well to Jordanian youth, who represent the bulk of the voters in the country. Since Jordan's economic recession has made jobs for youth scarce, the candidates focused on creating new jobs and educational opportunities for youth.

At the same time, a return to Islamic fundamentalism has become apparent at Jordan's universities. Young people in particular are frustrated by recent failures of secular Arab governments. As a result, support for the three elected Islamic fundamentalists may have come from the younger voters.

By reconvening parliament in January, King Hussein strengthened his bid to become spokesman for the Palestinian people. A Jordanian newspaper editor said there was absolutely no way to reconvene parliament without providing a formula to include West Bankers.

Accordingly, the parliament amended the Constitution to permit Palestinians from the West Bank to be appointed members. The original Constitution provided for elections on the East and West Banks to provide 30 seats each in the lower house of the assembly. Parliament will act promptly to appoint a deputy to fill the one West Bank seat vacant.

Palestinian rights were a key campaign issue. Some candidates pledged to retain the rights of Palestinians as a national duty. Others endorsed the idea of establishing a Palestinian state in confederation with Jordan.

Along with political reunification this election may have ushered in a trend toward democratization for the citizens of the Hashemite regime. One theme in the campaign was a call for legalizing and organizing poitical parties which have not been permitted since the 1950s.

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