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Jordanian Vote Reform Vexes Brotherhood (NY) TIMES) By RANA F. SWEIS AMMAN 04/19/12)Source: http://www.nytimes.com/2012/04/19/world/middleeast/jordanian-vote-reform-vexes-brotherhood.html NEW YORK TIMES NEW YORK TIMES Articles-Index-TopPublishers-Index-Top
AMMAN — 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.

“The goal is to help political parties and coalitions place themselves on the country’s political map,” Mr. Khasawneh said.

But for people like Mr. Hasoun, the protester, the debate about the new law has little meaning. “I am protesting against a new elections law that was announced by the government,” said Mr. Hasoun as he walked slowly among a few thousand people. “It will not ensure fair representation.”

Critics complain that despite the prime minister’s assurances the new law limits political parties to a tiny number of seats. Indeed, each of the 23 political parties, which range from Socialists to Islamists, can only enter five candidates for the 15 seats allocated nationally to parties and coalitions. That means most candidates cannot officially be on party lists.

The government’s trickiest problem in gaining acceptance for the reforms may be its approach to Jordan’s largest opposition group, the Muslim Brotherhood. On April 16, lawmakers voted to add an article to the new law to forbid the establishment of any political party on a “religious, ethnic or sectarian basis.” On the face of it, the measure would disqualify the I.A.F., the Brotherhood-affiliated party, from taking part in the elections. But its members might still run as individuals or the party may change its name to remove its religious connotation.

A tense game is now likely between the government and the Brotherhood over whether a way can be found to bring the Brotherhood into the elections or whether the organization stays out.

“The I.A.F. will have to think hard before deciding to boycott the upcoming elections, because the country is passing through a very crucial time, and they will be left out,” said Bassam Hadaddin, a legislator who voted to ban religious parties. He believes that a compromise may be reached that keeps the Brotherhood in the game but in check.

“They want to pressure the government to make sure they have the highest representation possible and win as many seats as possible, ” Mr. Hadaddin said. “At the same time for the Parliament to be truly representative of the people, it is crucial that the I.A.F. join the process.”

The government is considering some concessions to try to ease concerns. For instance, the Interior Ministry may lose its monopoly over the licensing of political parties. The number of people required to form a party may be cut from 250 to 200, and the minimum age of members reduced from 21 to 18. Monitoring of political activity by the securities services is to be eased.

In Jordan, commentators are divided, some denouncing the new rules, others arguing for patience. “At least the new law indicates there is a need for political parties to participate in Jordanian politics,” said Osama Rantesi, an editor and political columnist at Arab Al Yawm, a daily newspaper.

But other voices warn that the government is taking a risk by only instituting modest reforms. “Clearly there is a power struggle between those who want reform and those who benefit from the status quo in the country,” said Mr. Shehadeh, the political analyst. “The latest developments this week go against the promise of true political reform in Jordan after the Arab Spring.” (Copyright 2012 The New York Times Company 04/19/12)


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