Clan ties dominate Jordan election: Islamic groups are set to lose out under the King's new electoral law, writes Charles Richards in Amman

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The Independent Online
JORDANIAN citizens, including those of Palestinian nationality, go to the polls today in what was trumpeted as a deepening of the democratisation process - with the participation of political parties for the first time since 1956 - but which, with last-minute changes to the electoral law, maintains King Hussein's control on the resulting parliament.

The elections are being held less than two months after the signing of the Palestinian-Israeli accord on 13 September. Yet the shockwaves from this political earthquake have scarcely crossed the Jordan valley, the topographical boundary between the Palestinians on the West Bank and the Transjordanians of the East Bank. The peace accord is hardly an issue. Projections that the elections would be a plebiscite on the accord have not been realised.

Rather, the issues are bread-and- butter ones, of livelihoods and jobs in a country hard hit by the loss of its main export market, Iraq. There is a curious symmetry. Four years ago, the King announced elections as a safety valve after the eruption of food riots in Maan in the south. Then the issue was as much the question of popular participation in the decision-making process - always a sensitive issue in an Arab world still largely ruled by despots, military officers and minor sultans - as demands for basic human needs.

Much has changed in the past four years. The fall of the Berlin Wall, the end of the Soviet counterweight to US influence, the Gulf war, the peace process with Israel - all have had a big impact on Jordan. The King may, as his spokesmen insist, have made a full recovery from cancer, but his illness focused attention once more on his mortality and the succession.

The 1989 elections, the country's first for more than 30 years, were viewed inside and outside Jordan as a considerable advance for two reasons. First, they were conducted in an atmosphere of freedom and fairness almost unparalleled in the Arab world, where elections when held have a curious propensity to return a Hosni Mubarak or a Hafez al-Assad with an unlikely majority of 99.85 per cent.

Second, they also allowed in a large number of Islamic fundamentalist candidates. At first the liberal bourgeoisie was aghast at the unexpected scale of the fundamentalist gains, but soon realised that King Hussein's handling of the rising Islamic current by co-opting it into parliament was far preferable to the heavy-handed ineptitude of the Algerian or Egyptian authorities.

Yet if the participation of parties for the first time is in theory a progressive step, the change in the electoral law will have a regressive effect in practice. With one stroke of the royal pen, King Hussein in September signed the amendment of the electoral law. Hitherto, voters could cast votes for as many as nine candidates in the larger constituencies, where several seats were at stake. In 1989, this rule favoured the Islamic bloc, with its better organisation and tactical voting, over the other candidates, who were hopelessly divided. Some 22 members of the Muslim Brotherhood were elected, as well as 11 independent fundamentalists, out of a total of 80 parliamentary seats. In today's election, 550 candidates are standing for the same number of seats.

Under the new law, each registered elector will have only one vote. This will result in voters in a traditional tribal country voting for their first focus of loyalty - the tribe or clan or family - rather than any ideological or party affiliation. So although the legalisation of parties was an advance, the amendment accentuates the existing structure of the tribal society.

As one commentator put it: 'The dominant reality is that traditional social and cultural factors remain far stronger determinants of our national character than ideological sentiment or modern political and institutional structures.'

People are moved more by blood ties than political slogans. That is not to say that there is not competition within tribal groups. In some cases half a dozen candidates from one tribe are courting the same votes. Personalities rather than policies are likely to triumph. And the way tribal members vote in Maan or Kerak has more to do with anthropology than the building of freestanding institutions.

The main losers are expected to be candidates from the Islamic trend campaigning as the Islamic Action Front, which will be unable to exercise a block vote.

Yet though the elections are lacking in the fervid spirit of 1989, and are without the all-consuming national issues, they do represent an enhancement of a process to which King Hussein has expressed his commitment. On the one hand, he is laying down the foundations for stronger institutions to buttress the succession. On the other hand, he needs a more pliable parliament this time round to approve and ratify an accord with Israel which is due to be signed during this term.

The danger, however, in the way democratic rules have been manipulated to serve this policy is that this has bred disillusionment with the political system. People accept that the King and the palace still control matters of defence, security and foreign policy. The outgoing parliament had only limited powers of investigation and approval. With growing concern about day-to-day living, and no outlet in real political activity, the population could quite easily once more erupt in outbreaks of civil unrest.

(Photograph omitted)