Jordanians Investigate Corruption, Changing Rules of Political Game

THE Jordanian parliament's unprecedented move to investigate corruption on the part of senior government officials has caused a big stir in a country where senior officials have traditionally been above public scrutiny.

Although a powerful former prime minister, Zaid al-Rifai, narrowly escaped parliamentary indictment on charges of misuse of public funds, such investigations could change the rules of the political game in this country.

"It is the beginning of a new era. It is a warning to former and present officials that they can no longer hide behind their official post or alleged loyalty to the regime," said a former minister, who asked not to be named. First investigation

The first parliamentary investigation into government corruption found that Mr. Rifai and two of his ministers were responsible for awarding a highway construction contract worth 36 million dinars (then worth $109 million) to an Indian company, ignoring experts' advice and lower bids by another Indian company.

Rifai's opponents in the parliament, including Islamist leftists and many liberals who felt repressed during his tenure as prime minister from 1985 to 1989, are trying to use the case to prove that the former premier was largely responsible for the country's $18 billion deficit.

Rifai, a veteran politician and a close personal friend of King Hussein, had to resign in April 1989 following antigovernment riots protesting increases of fuel and food prices prompted by the International Monetary Fund.

Many observers believe that Rifai's condemnation by 47 out of 80 deputies, although short of the two-thirds majority needed to indict him, signals the end of his political career. But Rifai accused parliament of undermining the regime itself and vowed not to quit politics.

This case provides a glimpse into the ongoing power conflict triggered by the democratization process King Hussein launched in the spring of 1989. Limiting power

"Some traditionalist members of the parliament, who were either former ministers or aspire to be ministers, were alarmed that the indictment of Rifai could start a precedent that will limit the powers of future ministers," said one deputy.

In a country where martial law effectively paralyzed the Constitution and political expression until its removal last April, power has been concentrated within a narrow circle including members of the security apparatus, the main East Bank tribes, and a handful of wealthy, loyalist Jordanian and Palestinian families.

The prime minister is usually appointed by the king and until recently there was no system of checks and balances to curb security excesses or ensure financial accountability to the public.

The democratization process, which lifted martial law and legalized political parties, has opened up the system to a broader sector of political and social groups.

Resentment of these changes was evident in Rifai's statement and his supporters' arguments, which depicted the ongoing conflict as a power struggle between loyalists and opponents of the ruling Hashemites.

Forty-two deputies responded quickly to this claim by announcing that they were suing the former prime minister for slander. "You cannot manifest your loyalty [to King Hussein] by trying to hide under the Hashemite cloak," said Laith Shbeilat, an independent Islamist deputy who criticized Rifai in the 1980s.

Rifai's opponents also note that all of the political groups, including King Hussein's former political rivals, are no longer seeking his overthrow and have publicly pledged to work toward a pluralistic system under Hashemite rule.

The parliament's drive to establish a system of accountability has also aroused tribalism, which remains an important factor in Jordan's political life. There were at least three demonstrations last week protesting the decision to clear Rifai but refer to trial former Minister of Construction and Public Work Mahmoud al-Hawamdeh. Residents of Mr. Hawamdeh's hometown said he was being made a scapegoat. Public balks

But many in parliament view the whole episode as a signal to King Hussein and other Jordanian decisionmakers that the public will no longer accept the reappointment of an unpopular official.

"The vote was a condemnation of an era," says Mona Shkeir, one of the country's leading political commentators.

Rifai's rule as prime minister was characterized by a crackdown on political and press freedoms, hostility toward the Palestine Liberation Organization, and acquiescence with American policies in the region.

Some senior Western diplomats think that Rifai is the best man to head a Jordanian government that will lead negotiations with the new Israeli government led by Yitzhak Rabin.

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