AS early returns began to emerge, the Muslim fundamentalists appear to have achieved a significant victory in Jordan's first general elections in 22 years. The Muslim fundamentalists gained most in the urban constituency of the capital. At least 10 seats in the six districts of Amman were taken by candidates running for the Muslim Brotherhood group or Islamic independents. In other rural and desert constituencies, the votes were more along tribal lines, with the most popular candidate of the major tribes winning the highest number of votes.
The turnout at the polls was relatively low, with only 61.5 percent of 870,000 registered voters filling in ballots.
The moderate turnout was attributed to a sense of political apathy in some middle-class and affluent areas, because of the long years of political inactivity. Parliament was suspended and political parties banned in 1967 when King Hussein faced strong opposition from Nasserite and leftist parties.
The Muslim Brotherhood, however, registered as a charity rather than political party and remained in favor because of its support for Hussein during the 1967 crisis.
The Brotherhood - and Islamic fundamentalists in general - has had much more scope then other political activists to operate unhindered. They call for Islamic law in Jordan and Holy War against Israel.
Leftists, Communists, and members of Palestine Liberation Organization factions have, by contrast, all been subject to strict surveillance and restrictions. As a result, they have been less able to establish the kind of widespread grass-roots support that have been the hallmark of the Muslim Brotherhood and other independent Muslim politicians.
The 650 candidates who ran in Wednesday's elections were competing for 80 seats in parliament's lower house. However, the electoral competition centered around 20 seats in the urban areas. The remaining 60 seats were expected to be filled by tribal and pro-establishment candidates. Nine seats were also reserved for Christian candidates.
The success of Muslim fundamentalists came as no suprise to most Jordanians. What had been in question was how significant their gains would be.
One Christian candidate, who ran for the Christian seat of Salt, said on the eve of the election that he would be willing to cooperate with the fundamentalists to form a unified bloc in parliament to challenge government policy. Jamal Shaer, a veteran politician with secular centrist tendencies, felt that the strength of the fundamentalist bloc meant cooperation was the only way forward.
In the event of their winning at least 10 seats, the fundamentalists, ``should be the nucleus of, or the leadership of,'' allied independent candidates, Dr Shaer said. ``We can draw a program, meet them half way, and give them the leadership of the opposition.''
However, Shaer pointed out that such a scenario would only be possible if the fundamentalists showed the willingness to hold dialogue with other politicians.
Shaer and others predict that the political pluralism that is expected to be gradually introduced into Jordan will serve to keep the fundamentalists in check and bring about a more flexible, tolerant outlook in their ranks.
Some of the more liberal Muslim fundamentalists agree with this analysis. Leith Shubeilat, a fundamentalist who received the highest number of votes in Amman's third district, said his political line called for adherence to ``the Islamic civilization, which should also include nonpractising Muslims and Arab Christians.
``Fifty percent of the members of the Muslim Brotherhood share this belief, and they are slowly, slowly coming to power within their ranks, and the old guards do not like it,'' said Mr. Shubeilat.
Whether the Muslim fundamentalists would be checked by other political streams remains to be seen. What most people agree, however, is that Jordan has embarked upon a process that seems irreversible.