Al-Ahram Weekly Online   1 - 7 May 2003
Issue No. 636
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Jordan Islamists change tactics

Jordan's influential Islamist opposition will take part in the coming parliamentary elections after nearly five years in the political wilderness. Lola Keilani reports from Amman

The Islamist Action Front (IAF), political arm of the influential Muslim Brotherhood, announced last week that it intends to field candidates in Jordan's 17 June elections.

The realisation that boycotting the elections would mean being deprived of any clout in the legislative process, or having a platform to express their views, prompted Jordan's powerful Islamists to take part in the upcoming parliamentary elections.

The IAF boycotted the last elections, held in 1997, in protest against the government's refusal to amend the one-person, one-vote system that they saw as a way of diluting their clout at the polls.

The Islamists are believed to have about 200,000 hardcore supporters whose votes are practically guaranteed.

Prior to the one-person, one-vote system, a voter could elect up to six MPs in some constituencies which led to a higher number of Islamist candidates in the lower house of parliament. However, the new system, introduced in 1993, has undermined the Islamists' strength.

At the 1989 elections, 33 Islamist candidates were elected, but the number fell to 16 in 1993. Since then, the IAF has been pushing for a reinstatement of the multi-vote system. The government's firm stance against the move led to the 1997 IAF boycott of elections.

The IAF has languished without representation in parliament since 1997, although a few Islamists have won seats running as independents.

The victory of these independents has placed the IAF in somewhat of a bind: to declare them as IAF affiliates would have meant a de facto acceptance of the elections, but to disown them would mean losing any voice in parliament.

The party took disciplinary action against two IAF activists who won seats in the 1997 elections. However, the move has since lost its impact as the two are expected to run on IAF tickets this time around.

On Monday, two days after the IAF announced it was dropping its boycott of elections and would take part in the next polls, the 120-member Shura Council of the Muslim Brotherhood movement declared its endorsement.

The Brotherhood, an active opponent of the 1994 peace treaty between Jordan and Israel, seems to have realised that it was an act of folly to work against the establishment from outside of parliament, hence its decision to join the electoral process.

The decision is increasingly relevant in light of the war in Iraq and the Islamists' fear that the ouster of Saddam's regime was serving Israel's interests by removing its strongest challenger.

The Islamists see the US, prompted by the attacks of 11 September, as fighting a war against the growth of Islamist power in the region.

"There is little doubt that the IAF realised that it would lose if it stays out of the political process in Jordan, hence the decision to drop the boycott of elections," Dr Abdel-Latif Arabiyyat, head of the Shura Council, told Al-Ahram Weekly.

"The Islamists want to do as much as they can to fight [against] Jordan becoming a player in the US- scripted regional scenario after the war against Iraq. They can do [this] more effectively if they are inside parliament," he added. Furthermore, grass-root supporters of the Islamists have been critical of the leadership for the 1997 boycott.

Last year, the group held a general referendum, and although the results were supposed to be secret, informed sources said a majority opted for participation in elections.

The Islamists have already proved their strength: they control all but two of the 13 powerful professional associations in the country.

A month after King Abdullah dissolved Parliament in June 2001, several months ahead of scheduled elections, a new electoral law raised the number of seats in the Lower House from 80 to 104 and lowered the voting age from 19 to 18.

Since then the elections, which should have taken place later that year, have been repeatedly postponed by the king, who cited turmoil in the Palestinian territories as his reason. He announced last month that elections would be held on 17 June.

The Islamists' parliamentary political agenda includes maintaining opposition to the normalisation of Jordanian-Israeli relations, maintaining support for the Palestinian resistance and opposing moves that would make Jordan an integral part of a US dominant regional order, hence diluting the voice of the pro-establishment camp in parliament.

The Islamists are hoping that the public rejection of the US-led war against Iraq and a perception that Jordan was somehow party to the war, in view of its dependence on the US, will attract even non-Islamists to vote IAF at the polls.

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