Jordan's Limited Democracy Leaves Voters Discontented

By Ellen Knickmeyer and Yasmin Mousa
Washington Post Foreign Service
Tuesday, November 20, 2007

CAIRO, Nov. 19 -- For Mousa al-Sunna, a 35-year-old hairdresser in Jordan's capital, Amman, the campaign banners draping the streets for Tuesday's parliamentary elections merited a derisive snort.

"Frankly speaking, I drive in my car and read all those banners and laugh," Sunna said Monday. He mocked the pledges of Jordan's candidates to do everything from liberating Palestinian territories to blocking increases in gasoline prices.

"How can they not raise the prices?" Sunna said. "The government will raise the prices whether we like it or not."

Tuesday's elections for the 110 seats in the lower house are marked by rising expressions of cynicism from among the country's 2.4 million voters, and from political analysts. Eighteen years after Jordan's ruling family lifted martial law and restored parliament, King Abdullah II faces growing charges that the parliament in this Middle East monarchy is only superficially democratic.

"We have really lots of posters, pictures, slogans in the streets," said Oraib al-Rantawi, director of the Al-Quds Center for Political Studies in Amman. "But we have very little politics, and we don't have really a serious campaign."

About 900 candidates are running, including about 200 women. A quota guarantees women at least six seats.

The parliamentary elections are the second under Abdullah, whose ascension to the throne in 1999 after the death of his father, King Hussein, raised hopes of democratic reforms.

Abdullah has called for the voting to be clean and transparent, and has urged young people in particular to participate. "These elections should reflect our vision to bolster democracy and produce a parliament capable of dealing with all challenges," the king said in a statement last week.

Like other Middle East states that have experienced father-to-son successions in recent years, such as Morocco and Syria, Jordan under Abdullah has pushed economic liberalization harder than democratic improvements.

The government and parliament have withstood calls to restructure the country's electoral system. The system gives disproportionate representation to sparsely populated rural areas to the detriment of cities, where most of Jordan's 5.6 million people live.

The setup favors tribal candidates, who generally support government policies, over liberal and Islamic opposition politicians concentrated in urban areas.

Parliament has the power to introduce legislation. In practice, the government drafts most laws, and parliament only rarely intervenes to frustrate government plans. Abdullah appoints all 55 members of parliament's upper house.

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