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Jordan's shift to democracy slows

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    Jordan s shift to democracy slows amid worries over Islamist power Mark MacKinnon The Globe and Mail. Toronto, Ont.
    Message 1 of 1 , Jan 19, 2008
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      Jordan's shift to democracy slows amid worries over Islamist power
      Mark MacKinnon
      The Globe and Mail. Toronto, Ont.

      The Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan was supposed to take a big step
      tomorrow toward becoming the democracy that both its people and its
      rulers say they want it to be.

      But instead of a breakthrough vote that might have seen this desert
      state emerge from a long history of one-man rule, the parliamentary
      elections will again return a slate of pro-government deputies with
      few duties other than to meekly pass King Abdullah II's decrees into
      law - just like every election held since this developing nation of
      5.6 million people first began its slow crawl toward democracy 18
      years ago.

      Terrified by the rise to power of Hamas in the neighbouring
      Palestinian territories, and shaken by the chaos in Iraq, Lebanon and
      elsewhere in the region, Jordan in recent years has postponed a series
      of planned electoral reforms that were supposed to have been in place
      by now, and instead moved to further tighten controls on dissent and
      free speech.

      In the past few months alone, the government has barred some of its
      harshest critics from running for office, sparred with election
      observers over access to polling stations and derailed plans to open
      the country's first privately owned, independent television channel.

      While the country's emboldened Islamist movement is crying foul - and
      some liberals accuse the government of using the spectre of extremism
      to quash all opposition - much of the secular elite is quietly
      supporting King Abdullah's go-slow approach to democracy, fearing that
      too much openness could expose Jordan to the kind of chaos that has
      engulfed its neighbours.

      "People say, 'What kind of democracy is there in Iraq? What kind of
      democracy is there in Palestine?' And if you ask them what kind of
      democracy they want for Jordan, they can't answer that," said Roula
      Attar, director of the Amman office of the National Democratic
      Institute, a democracy promotion group funded by the United States

      As in the past, the 110-seat parliament will be filled according to a
      Byzantine electoral code that allocates a disproportionate number of
      seats to sparsely populated rural areas of the country that are
      controlled by tribes traditionally loyal to the king. Women,
      Christians and ethnic minorities are also guaranteed seats, while
      urban centres such Amman and neighbouring Zarqa, where both the
      liberal and Islamist opposition movements have their base, are
      severely under-represented.

      It's the Islamists that the government fears most. Jordan's best
      organized political movement, the Islamic Action Front, is linked to
      Hamas through the international Muslim Brotherhood. Its members claim
      that if there was ever a free and fair election here, they would
      repeat the success Hamas had at the ballot box last year, when the
      Palestinian faction shocked even its own supporters by winning control
      of the Palestinian government.

      That won't happen in Jordan this time out, because the IAF is only
      half-heartedly taking part in the elections, fielding just 22
      candidates. The movement, which won 17 seats in the last parliament
      after fielding 30 candidates in the 2003 vote, says there's no point
      running a full slate, since the system is gerrymandered to ensure they
      never get close to power.

      "The government is afraid of the Islamic movement. To them, Islam
      equals terrorism. That's a motto for them, and the U.S. and the EU are
      supporting this because they want to keep real Muslims away from
      government," said Jihad Ali, a campaign worker for the IAF who last
      week helped organize an election rally in the Jabal al-Hussein refugee
      camp, a collection of ramshackle concrete buildings in the heart of
      Amman that is home to some 30,000 Palestinians.

      Jordan's government is hailed in the West but reviled by many
      Islamists around the region for policies that include a 13-year-old
      peace treaty with Israel and tacit support for the U.S.-led invasion
      of Iraq in 2003.

      While the IAF has support both inside and outside of Jordan's large
      Palestinian community, the similarities with Hamas are unmistakable.
      Both movements rally the poorest and angriest members of society under
      the simplistic slogan "Islam is the solution." Mr. Ali and other
      supporters speak of the need for "resistance" against Israel, the
      United States and the West and even sport the same green ball caps
      that Hamas did while campaigning in the Palestinian elections.

      "Gaza is a good example for us," Mr. Ali said, referring to the
      violent, impoverished stretch of Mediterranean coast that has been
      under Hamas control since a military takeover in June. "We hope an
      Islamic takeover will happen here too."

      Though opinion polls suggest that fewer than 20 per cent of Jordanians
      would vote for the IAF, such words chill the hearts of Jordan's
      liberals. Many say their worst nightmare would be an IAF takeover, and
      admit they see the logic in slowing the transition to democracy .

      Many observers say that while the system has deep flaws, Jordan can't
      risk radical reforms at a time when the country, which is host to at
      least 500,000 refugees from the war in Iraq plus upwards of 1.8
      million Palestinians, is a lonely oasis of stability amid a Middle
      East in crisis.

      "I'm working for a civil society organization and I'm fighting the
      government for us to have more monitoring of the election," said Amer
      Bani Amer, head of the al-Hayat Centre for Civil Society Development,
      a Jordanian group that will provide independent monitoring of
      tomorrow's elections. "But in the end I'm Jordanian, and I want what's
      best for my country. We need to go down the road to more freedoms, but
      we need to go slowly. If we had the same system as Canada tomorrow,
      the country would collapse."



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