Elections Expected to Give Jordan More Modern Look : Middle East: An authoritarian system begins to loosen. Many hope that reforms will ward off economic shocks.


Campaign banners flapped like freshly washed laundry last week on the streets of Amman, where Wednesday's national elections promise a new look in Jordanian politics.

The first full-scale balloting in 22 years will fill 80 seats in the lower house of Parliament with men--and possibly a woman or two--eager to take up King Hussein's pledge of a more open system of government.

"Change and reform have to take place," said Taher Masri, a former foreign minister and deputy prime minister who has thrown his hat in the electoral ring. "The Jordanians are an enlightened people. They need this. They've wanted this for a long time."

Jordan, a multi-ethnic country of at least 3 million, has suffered a series of economic shocks in recent years. The cumulative pressure of a $7-billion foreign debt, a sharply devalued currency and a loss of jobs for Jordanians who once worked in the Persian Gulf oil states during the boom years has emptied pockets of the dinars that once sustained a strong middle class with an import-loaded standard of living.

The debt has been rescheduled, but a payment crunch will come again in two years. Meanwhile, personal income has fallen 50% in the past year, and the squeeze spilled over into violence last April when an ill-managed increase in the price of gasoline sparked rioting in several cities.

Economic grievances quickly turned into political demands. Significantly, the demonstrators were so-called East Bankers, the king's own Bedouin and other tribal followers, not the Palestinians who form at least half the Jordanian population.

Hussein broke off a visit to Washington, then returned home to fire the government of Prime Minister Zaid Rifai and proclaim the elections.

Except for a handful of 1984 by-elections to fill empty parliamentary seats, Wednesday's nationwide balloting will be the first since the spring of 1967, just months before the Arab-Israeli war that cost Hussein military control of the West Bank of the Jordan River.

Masri, a Palestinian running in the crowded field of Amman's silk-stocking Third District, ticked off the issues as he saw them, all basic challenges to the authoritarian system that he served as minister in two cabinets:

* "Behavior of the government as a bureaucratic body," a demand for far greater popular influence through Parliament. Tightly held power led to the now-openly aired scent of corruption under the Rifai regime. While squeaky-clean in comparison to some of their Arab neighbors, several Jordanian officials lived too high for the economically pressed citizens.

* Relaxation of the intrusiveness and often high-handed tactics of the Mukhabarat, Jordan's internal intelligence service, which has aggressively squelched any criticism of the palace and past governments. Martial law has been imposed in Jordan since the 1967 war.

According to diplomatic and Jordanian sources, the Mukhabarat wanted to sharply curtail the field of more than 650 candidates for the parliamentary seats but was overruled by Hussein himself.

* Promotion of national unity, which in the eyes of Masri and others means a better shake for the Palestinian community, which holds full Jordanian citizenship. Government-gerrymandered districts have limited Palestinian opportunities at the polls .

"The Palestinians want to be part of the process," Masri said in an interview at his campaign headquarters. "We want to be Jordanians, to continue to help in building this country."

However, he said, "I cannot separate myself" from the wider Palestinian issue. A widely discussed element of the election is the entry of female candidates for the first time. Women were given the vote in 1974 and went to the polls in subsequent by-elections, but these will be the first national elections where they are a factor, and 12 are running for parliamentary seats.

Many political analysts here predict that the leftist and female candidates will be rejected at the polls. But the fundamentalists are expected to win a handful of seats and act as a drag on reformist tendencies in the new Parliament.

The fundamentalists built their strength in recent decades on the absence of open political institutions here. The Parliament stood dissolved by Hussein from 1974 to 1984 and was shut down again last year when the king made his historic decision to renounce Jordanian claims over the West Bank.

"The fundamentalists had at their disposal an important institution, the mosque," during these years, Masri pointed out. "With the abeyance of political life, they flourished."

Whatever its makeup, the lower house--the Parliament also has a palace-appointed Senate--will move cautiously, working for political reforms such as the restoration of the party system, banned since the late 1950s, and acting as an economic watchdog, Masri and other candidates say.

"It will look into past corruption, but not too deeply," he predicted.

A popular topic of political talk here is why elections are being held at all.

"If we had money in our pockets, there would be no vote," remarked a Jordanian journalist.

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