Jordan's First Party Vote Pits Tribes against Leftists Opposition Parties Hope to Form a Model for Arab Democratization

Article excerpt

IN the center of a huge, white tent stood a tall man dressed in an elegant black and white Bedouin costume trimmed with gold thread. Hundreds of men streamed into the tent while bitter Arab coffee made the rounds.

Abdel Hadi al-Majali, a Western-educated engineer, had returned to his tribal base to win support for his candidacy in Jordan's multiparty parliamentary elections, which are being held today. But he avoided discussing politics with his supporters. "After all, His Majesty King Hussein decides the policies of the country," Mr. Majali said.

Not far away, in the center of the old city, a veteran leftist activist named Issa Mdanat also contested the elections, espousing a populist message. "The people have been able to attain many of their rights, but we have a long way to go to ensure wider political participation and equal rights," he told his supporters.

In the campaign for Jordan's first democratic elections, Majali and Mr. Mdanat represent the old and new political forces, those who think the four-year democratization process has gone too far and those who think it has not gone far enough.

But the election has also become a standoff between powerful tribes and the newly legalized left-wing opposition parties.

Elite candidates like Majali, a former public security chief and ambassador to Washington, have fallen back on tribal and family structures for support. Populists such as Mdanat, who spent 12 years in prison for opposing government policies, are trying to boost the role of opposition parties in government decisionmaking.

King Hussein, who apparently worried that a parliament dominated by radical right-wing and leftist opposition parties could obstruct the peace process with Israel, introduced a "one person, one vote" electoral system that effectively prevents party alliances.

"It was a clear message to the tribes to unite and reassert their influence," says one Western diplomat. The tribes have proved divided, but King Hussein's tactic is expected to split the radical Islamic and leftist votes.

King Hussein started opening the political process in 1989 after a week of intense riots in this and other southern cities against economic policies engineered by the International Monetary Fund.

The country's first general elections four years ago gave a stunning victory to the right-wing, Islamist Muslim Brotherhood, which won one-third of the parliament. Once a reliable ally of King Hussein, and consequently the only group that was tolerated for three decades, the Islamists have become more radical, and King Hussein felt he could no longer rely on them as a useful balance against the leftist and pan-Arab nationalists. …

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