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MIDDLE EAST
Jordan, Fearing Islamists, Tightens Grip on Elections
THANASSIS CAMBANISNOV. 11, 2007
Supporters of Ahmed Saffadi, a candidate for Parliament from Amman, in his tent last week under a poster of the royal family. Bryan Denton for The New York Times
AMMAN, Jordan, Nov. 9 — This month’s legislative elections were supposed to be a watershed in this pro-American kingdom’s slow but committed march to democratic change.
But Hamas’s rise to power in the Palestinian Authority and its violent takeover of Gaza in June have cast a heavy shadow over politics in Jordan, where a Hashemite monarch maintains a tight, authoritarian grip on a restive Palestinian majority and an activist Islamic opposition.
As a result, the government has dropped plans to change its byzantine electoral law, prohibited some critics from seeking office and threatened to bar independent observers from the polls. And, with less than two weeks before the Nov. 20 vote, opposition candidates are accusing the government of rampant voter fraud.
The government’s fears have resonated in some quarters of the liberal elite that just two years ago was pushing for a political overhaul that would allow national parties and free, fair elections. But Jordan’s system restrains not only Islamists but also secular liberal parties and advocates of Palestinian rights. Many in the opposition accuse the government of using the specter of rising Islamism to justify autocratic rule.
“We have democracy, but we don’t want it to go to an extent where the radical people could rule the country,” said Hakem Habahbeh, a pilot who was spending a recent evening at the campaign tent of Ahmed Saffadi, in a wealthy, liberal enclave. Mr. Saffadi, a former military officer and now a cellphone company executive, is running for Parliament from the third district of Amman, the capital. Political discussion in the tent ran late into the evening. Most of the talk involved rising prices and unemployment, and fear that Jordan’s Islamists could follow the example of Hamas and rise to power.
“We can’t have more freedom right now, conditions don’t allow it,” said Ahmed Saleem, another Saffadi backer at the tent. With the examples of disorder nearby in the West Bank, Gaza and Iraq, he said, liberals in Jordan have set aside demands for political freedom.
“Jordan needs stability,” said Mr. Saleem, a bureaucrat in the mayor’s office. “We don’t like to make trouble.”
The slowdown in democratization has further alienated Jordan’s only significant opposition party, the Muslim Brotherhood’s Islamic Action Front, which commands deep support in urban areas, especially among Jordanians of Palestinian origin. The party has put forward 22 candidates, even fewer than it did in 2003, saying they would not stand a chance against the widespread government fraud it expects.
The Islamic Action Front boycotted municipal elections in July amid charges that the government was busing soldiers to districts and ordering them to vote for pro-government candidates.
Though some in the party say it would be better to participate in the coming elections, even if the voting is compromised, Zaki Bani Rsheid, the secretary general, argued for another boycott.
Mr. Bani Rsheid contends that in a completely open election, Islamists would win a plurality of votes and the right to form a government. (In the last parliamentary election in 2003, the Islamic Action Front won 17 of 110 seats.)
“We gave the government legitimacy and got nothing in return,” he fumed this week. “The election will not be fair.”
Islamists in Jordan have been given greater latitude to take part in political life than in most Arab countries, but Mr. Bani Rsheid says the government insists on “no reform, no political change, no democracy,” because “they are looking at what happened to Hamas.”
The elected legislature has limited powers in Jordan’s heavily centralized monarchy, but the body has the authority to introduce legislation, which it rarely does, and to censure the cabinet, which it has done on occasion. All 110 legislative seats will be decided in the election.
Independent Jordanian groups have trained thousands of monitors and have been tracking the campaign for illegalities, but they have been in a protracted fight with the government over access to polling stations.
Already, candidates have charged that the government has illegally shifted the registrations of tens of thousands of voters to provinces where pro-government candidates need more votes. The government has denied the accusations but has refused to open the registration rolls to scrutiny.
Two people have been arrested on suspicion of offering money for votes. Analysts like Nahed N. Hattar, a Christian who writes for the Arab al Youm newspaper, said such vote buying is rampant. Mr. Hattar blames an influx of money from rich candidates, and from competing power centers in the government, which he says offer money for votes to maximize their parliamentary blocs.
Beyond allegations of cheating, the election system is set up in a way that makes it hard for Islamists and other opposition candidates to compete.
The election law reserves seats in Parliament for women, and Christian and Circassian minorities. Gerrymandered districts overrepresent rural areas where Jordanian tribes are strong, and underrepresent urban areas dominated by Jordanians of Palestinian origin.
Here in the capital, where more than a third of Jordan’s population lives, every legislator represents about 95,000 people. In the rural provinces of Al Karak and At Tafilah, by contrast, each legislator represents about 2,000.
The government has not shied away from direct interference. In October, authorities banned Toujan al-Faisal, a former lawmaker and an outspoken critic of government corruption, from running for Parliament because of her 2002 conviction for “harming the state’s dignity.” Ms. Faisal served 100 days in prison for the offense, which stemmed from her criticism of the government’s approach to car insurance.
“Here the head of a corrupt government decides who can and cannot run for office,” Ms. Faisal said in an interview in her home here. “They want a Parliament that won’t hold the government accountable for corruption.”
For the most part, candidates have focused on issues like fighting inflation and promoting youth. Still, some slogans and speeches explore delicate topics, like the links between Palestinians in Gaza and the West Bank and those in Jordan, where the population is 30 percent to 60 percent Palestinian, depending on who is estimating. Credible estimates put the figure at 50 percent to 60 percent.
The campaign of Najati al Shakhshir, a Palestinian businessman who made much of his fortune renting cars in Jordan and Iraq, is based largely on demanding more rights for Palestinians. Palestinians, for example, are not allowed to hold senior jobs in the military.
“All Jordanians have equal rights and obligations, no matter where they were born,” said Mr. Shakhshir, whose family is from Nablus, in the West Bank.
Such talk alarms some Jordanian analysts, who say it will only raise tensions between Jordanians of Palestinian origin and those East Bank Jordanians who lived here before the first influx of Palestinian refugees in 1948.
And the Muslim Brotherhood’s party has done little to temper fears spurred by the Gaza takeover. A former secretary general of the Islamic Action Front, Hamza Mansour, is running a firebrand campaign with language almost identical to that of Hamas.
“We must not give up the resistance,” Mr. Mansour, a Palestinian whose family came to Jordan from Haifa, said Tuesday. “We must never give up the right of return. We must condemn the embargo of Gaza!”
At a voter rally in Amman’s poor, hilly second district, Mr. Mansour — wearing a traditional white tribal scarf on his head and a suit and tie — showed a slide show featuring armed and masked Hamas fighters to about 75 men. His posters show two crossed swords supporting a Koran beneath the slogan, “Choose Islam as your weapon.”
“The system has disfigured democracy,” he shouted hoarsely. “Don’t let them hold us back.”
A version of this article appears in print on , on Page 110 of the New York edition with the headline: Jordan, Fearing Islamists, Tightens Grip on Elections. Order Reprints| Today's Paper|Subscribe
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