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Jordan's King Approves Schedule for Elections

KING Hussein's decision to hold Jordan's first multiparty parliamentary elections on schedule reflects an attempt to preserve the country's experiment with democracy despite deepening divisions between supporters and opponents of the Israeli-Palestinian peace plan, officials and analysts here say.

The announcement on Tuesday night came as a surprise to loyalist and opposition parties. Just the day before, King Hussein had hinted that he favored putting off the parliamentary elections without implying that he was ready to restore the old parliament.

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Advocates of the postponement had sought the restoration of the former parliament to prevent a political vacuum and a gradual return of restrictions of freedoms. Opposition party leaders had expressed concern that Jordan was foresaking the democratization process it launched in 1989.

The historic accord between Israel and the Palestine Liberation Organization had renewed concerns here that Jordan would be plunged into internal political friction between Jordanians and Palestinians. The accord opens the way for the possible return of Palestinian refugees displaced in the 1967 war, leaving Jordan uncertain about the future identity of its population, roughly half of which is of Palestinian origin.

King Hussein had considered delaying the elections pending further clarification on how many Palestinians would be allowed to return to the Israeli-occupied territories.

Whether it was deliberate or not, the king had successfully cornered both his Cabinet - which reportedly favored postponing the elections - and the opposition parties. While the Cabinet had to choose between restoring a restive parliament, elected in 1989 and dissolved last month, and new elections that will raise many sensitive issues, the opposition was forced to choose between accepting new electoral laws stipulating one-candidate, one-vote, and a potential suspension of parliamentary life.

The one-candidate, one-vote system is likely to produce a conservative, pro-establishment parliament that is not expected to challenge any prospective peace agreement with Israel.

``The government will need the agreement over the agenda [for peace talks that Jordan and Israel signed on Sept. 14] to be ratified by parliament in order to defuse and weaken the mounting opposition,'' one former minister says.

Jordan will need its democratic coat, analysts say, to attract financial support now that most international aid will focus on Palestinian autonomy in the West Bank and Gaza Strip.

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