Jordanian Vote Reform Vexes Brotherhood ; Draft Election Law Bars Religious Parties, Affecting Main Opposition Group

Article excerpt

Pressured for reforms, the government is drawing up a new election law barring religious parties in a country where the Muslim Brotherhood is the largest opposition group.

For Osama Hasoun, 23, protesting has become a weekly affair. Nearly every Friday afternoon, he prays at Amman's popular Grand Husseini Mosque. Afterward, he carefully folds his prayer mat, puts on his black shoes and blends into the crowd.

Revolutions that began last year in Tunisia and spread across the region also sparked protests and strikes in countries like Jordan. Opposition groups have called for comprehensive political reform and greater popular representation but mostly stop short of demanding the ouster of the regime.

In an effort to respond to these pressures, the Jordanian government recently submitted a draft of a new election law to Parliament after appointing a national dialogue committee to overhaul the system. Once the new law is passed, elections are expected to take place by the end of this year. How the campaign unfolds will be a key test of whether the government is serious about reform.

It already looks doubtful that the changes will put an end to cynicism about the electoral process. That is in part because the new system may continue to put fetters on political parties and opposition groups, including the Islamic Action Front, the political wing of the Muslim Brotherhood. The I.A.F. was particularly incensed by a recent move in the Parliament to bar religious parties.

"These developments may have dire consequences for Jordanian politics, including a boycott by the Islamic Action Front," said Marwan Shehadeh, a political analyst and expert on Islamic movements.

In a statement, the I.A.F. secretary general, Hamza Mansour, said that the latest moves by the government were "unjustified and illogical," but that no decision had yet been taken to boycott the elections.

The existing election law has been criticized for favoring regime loyalists and tribal leaders because of gerrymandering that tilts toward conservative rural districts over the capital, Amman, and other urban areas, where Palestinians and Brotherhood supporters are concentrated. The result has been a Parliament of individuals rather than parties and one that favors the so-called East Bankers, or tribal Jordanians. The system also erected high hurdles for political parties because of obstacles to licensing and limited access to seats.

"The Parliament needs to take into consideration the sensitivities and remove all articles in the new law that encourages discrimination and division among society," said Mohammad Sweiden, assistant managing editor of Al Ghad, an Amman daily.

The lower house of Parliament is elected while the upper house is appointed by the king, who also appoints and dismisses prime ministers and cabinets. The powers of the legislative bodies are now being debated. In the past, the Senate or the king had a veto over bills passed in the lower house.

At a press conference last week, Prime Minister Awn Khasawneh said that under the new law voters would be able to cast three ballots instead of one as is the case now. Two would be for individual candidates in the voter's district and one for a political party or national coalition. The number of seats reserved for women would be raised to 15 from 12, and the total number of seats in Parliament increased to 138 from 120. …