IN the center of a huge, white tent stood a tall man dressed in an elegant black and white Bedouin costume trimmed with gold thread. Hundreds of men streamed into the tent while bitter Arab coffee made the rounds.
Abdel Hadi al-Majali, a Western-educated engineer, had returned to his tribal base to win support for his candidacy in Jordan's multiparty parliamentary elections, which are being held today. But he avoided discussing politics with his supporters. ``After all, His Majesty King Hussein decides the policies of the country,'' Mr. Majali said.
Not far away, in the center of the old city, a veteran leftist activist named Issa Mdanat also contested the elections, espousing a populist message. ``The people have been able to attain many of their rights, but we have a long way to go to ensure wider political participation and equal rights,'' he told his supporters.
In the campaign for Jordan's first democratic elections, Majali and Mr. Mdanat represent the old and new political forces, those who think the four-year democratization process has gone too far and those who think it has not gone far enough.
But the election has also become a standoff between powerful tribes and the newly legalized left-wing opposition parties.
Elite candidates like Majali, a former public security chief and ambassador to Washington, have fallen back on tribal and family structures for support. Populists such as Mdanat, who spent 12 years in prison for opposing government policies, are trying to boost the role of opposition parties in government decisionmaking.
King Hussein, who apparently worried that a parliament dominated by radical right-wing and leftist opposition parties could obstruct the peace process with Israel, introduced a ``one person, one vote'' electoral system that effectively prevents party alliances.
``It was a clear message to the tribes to unite and reassert their influence,'' says one Western diplomat. The tribes have proved divided, but King Hussein's tactic is expected to split the radical Islamic and leftist votes.
King Hussein started opening the political process in 1989 after a week of intense riots in this and other southern cities against economic policies engineered by the International Monetary Fund.
The country's first general elections four years ago gave a stunning victory to the right-wing, Islamist Muslim Brotherhood, which won one-third of the parliament. Once a reliable ally of King Hussein, and consequently the only group that was tolerated for three decades, the Islamists have become more radical, and King Hussein felt he could no longer rely on them as a useful balance against the leftist and pan-Arab nationalists.
Realizing the potential threat of a strong Islamic force, King Hussein lifted the ban on the left, giving way to the formation of 20 parties. These parties are mostly offshoots and splinters of the strong leftist and pan-Arab underground movements that constituted the core of the opposition for decades.
The king legalized political parties and lifted martial law only after securing an unprecedented allegiance from his historic political enemies. In 1990 the ``national charter'' drafted by loyalist and opposition thinkers laid the basis for a pluralistic system that allows for changes under the Hashemite monarchy.
Through the national charter, the king agreed to some form of power-sharing in return for implied commitments from his former enemies not to work for Arab governments or parties abroad. Egypt, and to a lesser extent Syria and Iraq, held strong influence over the opposition in Jordan during the 1950s and the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) in the 1970s and 1980s.
At least five of the newly legalized parties are off-shoots of leftist Palestinian groups, which formed Jordanian parties, while supporters of the mainstream PLO Fatah movement still maintain a broad power base in Jordan, particularly in Palestinian refugee camps.
According to analysts and officials, one of King Hussein's main concerns was that the rift among Palestinians over the PLO-Israeli accord could destabilize the country by turning the campaign into a battleground for proponents and opponents of the agreement.
At least 15 opposition parties oppose the peace process and pro-Western policies.
But the main concern for many opposition leaders is creating an open political system. In a simple building in Amman, former leftist activists have established an opposition newspaper, Al Ahali, which is gaining credibility for its outspoken criticism of human rights violations and its exposures of repression.
Many leftists back from exile espouse the dream of building a model for democracy in the Arab world based on human rights. They are aware that under a monarchy, in which the king has the prerogative of dissolving the parliament, such an experiment could prove to be fragile.
``The major change in this new experiment [in pluralization] is that the previous conflicts in the society are taking legal and legitimate forms,'' says Mohammed Farhan, a writer for Al Ahali. ``The left has learned to adapt by trying to narrow the gap between its ideologies and the new situation that allows for building a freer society.''