AMMAN, JORDAN — Jordan this month held the first, free, honest general election in any Arab or Muslim country since World War II, when these countries achieved independence. In all earlier popular exercises, women have been excluded, polls were single-party charades, results were bought by rich candidates or rigged through official interference.
The balloting Nov. 8 was free from all these disabilities. King Hussein was pushed into elections by the food and price riots that shook Jordan in April, but having so decided, he then clearly wanted to know what his people felt. He installed Jordan's leading military man, Field Marshal Sharif Zayed Shaker, as prime minister, and Shaker carried out his monarch's command to the letter.
Through this latest example of glasnost , Jordan can be welcomed to the small number of democracies in the world. This election should go a long way toward disproving the contention that Islam is incompatible with parliamentary democracy--although it certainly is incompatible with what Islamic authorities call "the divisive party system," which is why Hussein lived happily without parties after he banned them in 1957. Hence all 635 candidates for 80 parliamentary seats had to stand as individuals--with one exception:
The candidates of the Muslim Brotherhood, an organized body deemed not a party but merely a socio-religious "movement," was given freedom to campaign as a group.
Twenty out of the brotherhood's 26 candidates won; along with them stood 14 members of other assorted fundamentalist groupings. In all, the militants took 34 seats, in a conspicuously clean general election.
The results here will be most encouraging for militant Muslim groups everywhere, for they will see them as proving that, given freedom, the voice of the people speaks as the voice of Allah through such aggregations. And from now on, the specter of an Islamic state emerging from the ballot box will haunt the government of every Muslim country.
In all these nations, from Senegal and Morocco to Indonesia and the southern portion of the Philippines, there is a relentless daily tussle going on between the Islamic fundamentalists and the regimes.
In some countries--Egypt, Sudan and Tunisia--militants seem to have pushed the governments against a wall; in others--Malaysia, Bangladesh, Pakistan and Algeria--the outcome of the contest is in the balance; in Syria, Morocco, Indonesia and Turkey, the authorities have the militants in hand, or nearly so.
Considering the Jordanian election results, it is surprising this tussle has not been as obvious elsewhere. One reason it has not is because the king has allowed the brotherhood to operate in the open. Hussein's strategy was to use the brotherhood as a counterweight to the leftist and nationalist opponents of the monarchical system. The brotherhood has kept a low profile, so as not to draw too much attention to the fact that the king granted it a privileged position.
This political exploitation is one way that the Muslim regimes have tried to use and contain the fundamentalist force. Few governments use this tactic because it is a dangerous game. More common is simple suppression, which works only for a limited time. Militant religious movements thrive on martyrdom and the respect and veneration given to a man of faith will always outlast the fear of the policeman.
A second anti-fundamentalist tactic is "outbidding"--when rulers try to show they are better Muslims than even the Muslim militants.
Almost every single Islamic country has tried this ruse, usually with generous financial aid from Saudi Arabia, the chief proponent of safe, polite, controlled fundamentalism. This involves the building of mosques, encouraging the faithful to perform the Hajj pilgrimage and otherwise appealing to the faithful.
The most thoroughgoing outbidding was Gen. Zia ul-Haq's program of Islamizing in Pakistan. But outbidding has not been any more successful against militants than suppression, because it has been tried and debunked too often.
While taking pride that the election was run cleanly and efficiently, Hussein's regime is not happy with the militants' strong showing. Even though Hussein has impeccable Islamic credentials (as a Hashemite, he is regarded as a direct descendant of the Prophet Muhammad), that does not mean he wants his kingdom to be replaced by an Islamic republic. So how can Hussein cope with the new Islamic factor?
He cannot use suppression or outbidding, because he has gone beyond those tactics. He now has to use democratic institutions against a democratically elected Islamic opposition.
This would mean legalizing political parties and permitting and even encouraging them to compete with the fundamentalists. That means gambling with the possibility of the parties staying or not staying within the confines of the monarchical system.