On the face of it, Jordan’s election this month would seem to be a lively affair. In the last couple of weeks, I’ve driven the length and breadth of the country. Well, not the length, but the breadth – from the Allenby Bridge across from the ghastly Arafat squat on the West Bank over to the eastern desert and the Iraqi border post at Trebil. And in every town you pass through there are handmade banners strung across the streets proclaiming the merits of a zillion candidates. Nothing fancy, just dense text on white sheets. But lots of them, everywhere. As I was heading into Amman from the north-west, two campaign perfectionists, tinkering with the height of their banner, accidentally lowered it on to the windscreen of my car. I ploughed into a crowded market killing 17 people. OK, I didn’t, but it was a close thing. Instead, I braked suddenly, leapt out, and attempted to untangle the banner from my wipers as the locals stood around laughing and the campaign operatives checked it for damage.
The word we veteran correspondents usually reach for on occasions like this is ‘vibrant’. Everything seems, at first glance, to be going splendidly vibrantly. It’s only on second glance that you begin to have doubts. For example, after a while I began to notice that the further a town was from the capital, the fancier the chaps in the campaign ads are. At five o’clock one morning outside a grocery store in Azraq en route to Iraq, I spotted a couple of locals loading up for a little campaign tour round the neighbourhood. The van was plastered with pictures of an urbane, middle-aged, moustachioed fellow in a dark suit and tie. The only other guy dressed like that in Azraq was me. Sartorially, Jordanian politics seems to be the opposite of American: in the New Hampshire primary, smooth, bespoke, Beltway types who’ve been wearing suits and wingtips since they were in second grade suddenly clamber into the old plaid and blue jeans and work boots, and start passing themselves off as stump-toothed inbred mountain men who like nothing better than a jigger of moonshine and a bunk-up with their sister.