Jordan candidate lifts weights, spirits ahead of Wednesday's election

Shibli Haddad is possibly the only candidate to inspire enthusiasm among voters for tomorrow's parliamentary elections. Hugh Naylor reports from Madaba

Shibli Haddad welcomes supporters at his campaign headquarters tent in Madaba on Monday. Salah Malkawi for The National
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MADABA, JORDAN // Tomorrow's parliamentary elections in Jordan have aroused little enthusiasm among eligible voters here.

Asked about the slate of candidates on offer, they typically respond with an annoyed rolling of the eyes, a shrug of the shoulders or outright derision.

Except when it comes to Shibli Haddad.

This bodybuilding, salt-of-the-earth sexagenarian has enthralled Jordanians with his eccentric campaign pledges and antics.

"He has flavour!" explains Anmar Abu Ghneim, 21, a supporter from Mr Haddad's hometown of Madaba, just south of Amman, the capital.

Mr Haddad's campaign photographs show him running with herds of sheep or feeding camels. Others show him in a suit and tie, wearing his trademark sunglasses, lunching on lettuce and riding tractors. He's not afraid to publicly display his affinity for pumping his own petrol or lifting weights.

His campaign messages are just as unorthodox.

The lowest point on earth - the Dead Sea, at 377 metres below sea level - is located inside Jordan's borders, which in Mr Haddad's view means that the country has an inside track on untapped oil reservoirs lying just below the ground. He vows to exploit those supposed petroleum resources, bringing riches to this resource-scarce kingdom of 6.5 million people.

As for Israel, which maintains a peace treaty with Jordan, he believes all of it should be Palestinian: "From the river to the sea" his campaign flyers read.

"All the other candidates should be following my lead because I'm a national, and I'm here to save our country!" said Mr Haddad, 61, a Christian who says he has studied business.

But from his Facebook page that has generated more than 35,000 "likes" and tens of thousands of comments, comes the question: "We in Palestine want to know: are you a real person?" asks one viewer.

It is a fair question to a man who worked in public relations for more than 30 years in Saudi Arabia and Qatar before returning to his homeland a decade ago to organise business conferences. As a former bodybuilder, Mr Haddad says he can relate to youth. And because he comes from a non-elitist family - his father was a blacksmith - he says is better suited for tackling corruption.

His reason for running for a seat in parliament is simple.

"King Abdullah said anyone could compete in the elections, so I just decided that I want to run because I want to make my country better," he said. That is the only credential required, he added.

Critics argue that Mr Haddad and his unusual campaign signal the broader dysfunctions of Jordan's political system.

"Haddad's a symptom of the fact that the electoral process has little value to people," said Fahed Kheitan, a columnist at Jordan's Al Ghad newspaper who has written about the meaning of Mr Haddad's rise to prominence.

The country's election law is skewed in favour of rural areas over urban ones, which critics says hinders party politics and favours the monarchy's traditional tribal elite over the country's majority population of Jordanians of Palestinian origin.

The system fosters candidates for the 150-seat parliament who generally lack the wherewithal to tackle pressing issues such as Jordan's debilitating debt, amounting to more than US$20 billion (Dh73.4bn), allegations of rampant corruption and festering grievances among the rural poor, he said.

"Because of this, we lack the proper political institutions and infrastructure to foster the serious politicians we need," Mr Kheitan added.

Despite an amendment to the election law last year that was encouraged by King Abdullah, many say the change is not nearly enough to empower parliamentary government. In protest, the country's main opposition, the Muslim Brotherhood, has vowed to boycott the poll.

Mr Haddad's opponents dismiss him.

"It mean, it's sad - this guy isn't cynical about things, at all," said Mustafa Hamarneh, one of three other candidates vying with Mr Haddad for a seat allotted for Christians in Madaba.

But some who visit Mr Haddad's tent just want to see if he lives up to his unconventional reputation.

"I came here to visit my parents, so I thought I'd come by to see who this man really is," said Izees Ma'ayeh, 37, who also brought two of her three children.

Asked if she would vote for Mr Haddad tomorrow, she laughed.

* With additional reporting by Suha Philip Ma'ayeh

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