Jordan's shift to democracy slows
- Jordan's shift to democracy slows amid worries over Islamist power
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
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
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
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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