Jordanian Conservatives Curb Democratic Reform despite King's Commitment to Democratization, Political Elites Have Instituted a Ban on Three Leftist Parties and Proposed Press Restrictions

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JORDAN'S halting moves to democratic rule are stumbling in the face of opposition from the kingdom's conservative political elite, local politicians and foreign diplomats say.

Less than a year from parliamentary elections that have been billed as the Arab world's first fully free vote in more than three decades, the government has banned three leftist parties applying for legal status, while the National Assembly is debating a restrictive law on the press that critics say would tightly curb democracy.

The moves have spurred criticism even within government ranks. If radical opposition parties are banned, "there won't be any balance," complains one senior official. "There will be centrist and conservative parties without giving any chance to the leftists."

Victims of the ban are more blunt. "It is impossible to say there is democracy in Jordan if our party is outlawed," says Ahmed Najawi, leader of the pro-Iraq Arab Socialist Baath Party.

"What does pluralism mean if you refuse to allow all parties to function?" echoes Tayseer Zabri, head of the Jordanian People's Democratic Party, which is associated with the Democratic Front for the Liberation of Palestine (DFLP), a radical Palestinian group.

Opinion among Jordanian political analysts is divided over how seriously the party bans and the planned press law will undermine the democratization process, which King Hussein has trumpeted as an example to his Arab neighbors since widespread rioting first prompted political reform here in 1989.

"The number of people inclined not to believe in the regime's good intentions is on the increase," warns Labib Kamhawi, a left-wing member of the Royal Commission that drafted the National Charter, setting out the path to democracy. "The problem is that the government opted for democratic transformation only as an exercise in international public relations."

Other observers take a more charitable view. "These are expected and natural bumps on the road to democracy," argues Rami Khoury, a prominent political commentator. "They reflect the fact that a lot of people here don't want to give up the power they have, and that a lot of the old guard people don't like democracy. They feel threatened by it."

Few Jordanians, even the government's most radical opponents, doubt that King Hussein himself is committed to leading his country to democracy, which he sees as the firmest foundation on which to build his royal Hashemite family's future and Jordan's stability.

But his Cabinet, the bureaucracy, the powerful security forces, and the political establishment as a whole are riddled with traditionalists who see no promise, only a threat, in democratic reforms.

"Many people who have been in government over the past 30 years, who have important positions in the government and in the bureaucracy, enjoy special privileges, such as fat commissions on government purchases, and they have no reason to benefit from democracy," Mr. …