Jordanian elections: Another attempt at buying time for the monarchy

Published in Jordan

 By Afro-Middle East Centre

For the third time in only six years, parliamentary elections were held in the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan on 23 January. Again, there was little suspense about the possible outcome. Cosmetic reforms were implemented in the past two years, but had not persuaded the public or the political opposition that meaningful change was on the way. The parliament was again composed of independent candidates, rather than political blocs which could seriously oppose the will of King Abdullah II. The elections did not signify a break with the past and Jordan’s ‘democracy’ remains as shallow and the king’s  path to reform as slow and hollow as ever.

The elections filled the ranks of the lower house of parliament (the upper house of the bicameral system is appointed by the king) with tribal leaders, pro-regime loyalists and independent businessmen. More than seventy-five per cent of the parliament can be considered loyal to the king. Only thirty-seven out of 150 parliamentarians are regarded as having an independent outlook critical of the regime. This group is diverse and includes leftists, liberal secularists and Islamists. The twelve leftists are affiliated with Pan-Arab nationalist groups and have been vocal critics of the regime; sixteen of the eighteen Islamist parliamentarians are from the Islamic Centrist Party (ICP); three al-Wasat candidates and two prominent members of the Islamic Action Front (IAF) – who dissented from their party’s boycott of the elections – made it into parliament.

The elections introduced a small degree of dissonance into the parliament; the 2010 elections resulted in virtually the entire parliament consisting of the king’s loyalists. Whether a twenty-four percent potentially ‘opposition’ parliament is enough to cause real change in the Jordanian political system is doubtful. Having won ten percent of the vote and thus being the largest bloc, the ICP publicly claimed it had a mandate to build a government coalition and name the next prime minister and speaker of parliament. However, it soon lost its position as the largest political bloc. Former parliamentary speaker Abdul Hadi Majali brought thirty lawmakers into a loose coalition called the National Current Party. It can safely be assumed that a new cabinet will be largely composed of regime loyalists. While it has often been claimed that this election introduced the novelty of a prime minister being chosen by the parliament rather than being appointed by the king, this is a misconception. King Abdullah did not amend Article 35 of the Jordanian constitution, which states that the king ‘appoints the Prime Minister and may dismiss him or accept his resignation’. He merely announced that the prime minister would be appointed ‘based on consultation’ with the majority coalition in parliament, a ‘consultation’ that will take place under the king’s auspices. No prime minister will be elected against the will of the king.

Consultations conducted by Royal Court Chief Fayez Tarawneh, tasked by Abdullah to select the new prime minister, are proceeding. While it seems certain that no ICP candidate will become prime minister, Islamists may feature in the new cabinet. This would signal a co-option of the ICP, rendering it part of the Jordanian system rather than a motor for change within it. It is the inability to bring about change from within the system which has repeatedly led the IAF, the country’s largest opposition party, to boycott January’s elections for fear of losing its credibility.

In the run up to the election, the IAF’s advisory council announced its boycott on the grounds that the king had failed to meet reform promises. The IAF called the election a farce, claimed it was rigged in favour of loyalists, and demanded that at least thirty per cent of seats in the lower house be opened to a nationalist list of political parties as opposed to the twenty-five per cent which the new electoral law provided for. By remaining out in the streets, the IAF may prove to be more dangerous to the king than if it entered parliament.

An offshoot of the Muslim Brotherhood, the IAF has been the most powerful opposition party in Jordan for more than two decades. In the 1989 parliamentary elections it won thirty per cent of seats. It has repeatedly boycotted parliamentary elections over the last two decades and has maintained its support base. Over the last two years it further broadened its support base by increasingly emphasising the socioeconomic dimension of its agenda. It was one of the major organising forces behind the popular demonstrations in Jordan in the last two years. It also spearheaded protests over the sharp fuel price increases last year. The dissent inserted into the system by the latest parliamentary election is likely a result of the IAF’s election boycott and its increasing ability to mobilise the popular dissatisfaction of Jordanians. It is for this reason that King Abdullah II hoped the IAF would participate in the elections.

On 23 February the IAF brought protesters back onto the streets in rejection of the formation of the cabinet which, it said, fell short of ‘true parliamentary governance’. The significance of the IAF may further increase in the near future. With the rise of the Muslim Brotherhood to power in Egypt, it will likely increasingly support the IAF. Although the foreign policy of Egyptian President Muhammad Mursi has yet to deviate sharply from that of his predecessor, his regime has, perhaps unwittingly, contributed to last year’s protests in Jordan. The repeated sabotage on Egypt’s oil pipeline to Israel has also impacted on Jordan’s oil imports, which it obtains from the same pipeline. Jordan’s rise in fuel prices has thus also been linked to these acts of sabotage.

While the tide of uprisings sweeping the region strengthened the morale of the Jordanian opposition and led to increasing and intensifying anti-government protests over the past two years, the violence and instability in Egypt and the ongoing Syrian crisis may have a chilling effect on Jordan. These experiences have instilled a sense of fear of political unrest among Jordanians. Many might prefer a corrupt political system to ravaging internal instability. That is the sentiment through which King Abdullah’s discourse of measured change should be read. He has repeatedly claimed that parties will emerge over the lifespan of two parliaments. He also pointed out that his son will inherit a ‘different’ monarchy. While the need for reform is present in the discourse, there is a distinct lack of urgency. But the power of the IAF and the political opposition has not necessarily increased as a result of the Middle East and North Africa Arab uprisings.

The proof of this is the IAF’s continued underlying support for the king. Although the protests have recently featured many voices which directly challenged and criticised Abdullah, he seems to remain largely above party politics. In a January interview with Der Spiegel, IAF party member Dima Tahboub repeated IAF’s longstanding support for reform ‘under the auspices of the Hashemite monarchy’. The party wants a constitutional monarchy and wants to avoid a violent overthrow or direct confrontation with the monarchy. This strategy of coexistence has helped the IAF’s long survival. Excessive executive powers for the king are the fundamental hindrance to representative politics as in Mubarak’s Egypt. Unlike in Egypt, where protesters demanded the fall of Mubarak, a broad call for the fall of the king remains unimaginable in Jordan.

Another reason why the stagnation within Jordanian politics is unlikely to change is that the reforms implemented over the past year and heralded by pro-regime pundits as a watershed do not level the playing field for the political opposition. The 2012 electoral law increased the size of the lower house of parliament and opened nineteen per cent of the lower house to a national list based voting system. The old single non-transferable vote system (SNTV) of 1993 is therefore still in place. The SNTV system allows voters to cast only one vote for individual candidates. It makes ideological voting rare and severely obstructs party politics. When votes are cast for individuals rather than for a ‘list’ of candidates, a single party candidate may harness a large portion of the votes, thus easily assuring his or her election as a representative but also taking votes away from other candidates from the same list.

Parties are also faced with difficult decisions as to how many candidates to field on ballot papers in a way that would ensure votes were not spread out too thinly. Opening twenty five per cent of the lower house to a list-based electoral system is not sufficient to change these dynamics or to allow for the emergence of parliamentary blocs rather than an array of easily coopted independent candidates.

The new electoral law also allows members of the security forces, about ten per cent of the country’s voter base with pro-regime inclinations, to vote. This will only strengthen Abdullah’s hold on the lower house. Further, the law failed to tackle the glaring problems of gerrymandering. Voting districts were demarcated in such a way by the monarchy that Trans-Jordanian voters are overrepresented. Trans-Jordanians (or East Bankers) are the original inhabitants of Jordan and constitute the core of the monarchy’s support base. Jordan’s urban centres, which are home to Jordanians of Palestinian descent (mainly refugees) and make up two thirds of Jordan’s seven million inhabitants, only have one third of the vote. Although the majority of the population is of Palestinian descent, eighty-five per cent of the 2010 parliament was made up of Trans-Jordanians.

Last year also saw the introduction of an independent electoral commission and an independent constitutional court. Both are steps in the right direction. They will, however, remain meaningless if the problems within the undemocratic system are not addressed. To curb vote buying through an independent electoral commission will not produce a representative parliament. Similarly, an independent court, designed to monitor the constitutionality of laws and regulations, may slightly rein in the powers of the monarchy, but does not really address the acute limitations of the power of parliament as a whole – especially when the fifty-five members of the upper house are appointed by the king.

Parliamentary powers, which remain unchanged, are also very restricted. A bill that is agreed upon by the lower house needs to be accepted by the upper house before being sent to the king for approval. Although a two-thirds majority approval of a bill in both houses can override a monarchical veto, such a scenario is unlikely because members of the upper house are beholden to the kind for their positions and he has the ability to dissolve parliament. Matters of foreign policy and national security also remain outside the powers of parliament. The recent introduction of the independent electoral commission and constitutional court only skim the surface of a greatly overpowering monarchic executive.

Jordan exhibits a complex monarchic survival strategy which encompasses the political system and attempts to control civil society. Freedom of speech is tightly controlled and criticism of the king severely punished. Control of civil society is further assured through its compartmentalisation and bureaucratisation. By encouraging groups to become legal and register with certain ministries, the regime is able to extend its bureaucratic power over them, to know what these organisations are planning, and to control their funding and activities.

This is not to say that Abdullah’s rule is permanent and without challenge. The uprisings in the region over the past two years teaches us not to assume such futures. The king faces and will face numerous challenges over the next few years. He has to devise hollow reforms whose meaninglessness will not be exposed, and has to defend the credibility of his reform promises. The creation of an independent election committee and the artificially doctored voter turnout serve this function. The voter turnout for January’s election was calculated by the electoral commission based on 2.3 million ‘registered voters’. Not all potential voters in the country of seven million registered. Turnout is therefore likely to be lower than the official 56.5 per cent and will be closer to the IAF’s estimate of seventeen  per cent. In the 2010 parliamentary elections voter turnout was estimated to range between fifteen and twenty-five per cent.

The Hashemite monarchy will continue to face the notorious challenge posed by the demographic divide between Palestinians and East Bankers. At some point in the future, it will become untenable for the majority of the population to be grossly underrepresented in political life. Since East Bankers continue to be sceptical of Palestinian representation in government and public institutions for fear of their capturing the state, Abdullah will have to bridge the divide between the two population groups or risk being challenged directly by Palestinians or cut off by his own traditional constituency.

Finally, perhaps the most imminent danger that the monarchy faces is economic. With a small industrial sector (less than fifteen per cent of GDP), modest agricultural potential due to scare water supplies, and limited natural resources (potash and phosphates), the monarchy’s ability to provide public goods and maintain the sophisticated security apparatus comes from foreign funding. The United States provides US$700 million per annum. To bring about a foreign policy alignment with the USA, Jordan signed a peace treaty with Israel in 1993.

But the alliance has been unpopular with Jordan’s Palestinian population. The periodic crises in the Palestinian-Israeli situation also affect Jordan. For instance, the suspension of the Jordanian parliament from 2001 to 2003 and the period of emergency legislation occurred because of the tensions that the peace treaty with Israel created during the Second Intifada. And foreign funding has not prevented Jordan from amassing a large national debt. IMF structural adjustment programmes forced the Jordanian government to repeatedly cut back on subsidies of basic commodities to attain further loans. These cuts repeatedly caused large-scale demonstrations. The recent demonstrations were a result of sharp rises in the price of fuel, and prompted the king to dissolve parliament and declare elections for 23 January. 

Over the past few decades, the monarchy has managed to overcome and subdue various challenges it has faced. It can also count on continued international support for its pseudo-reform path. The USA will support Abdullah as long as he respects the peace treaty with Israel. It is unlikely to support an opposition that could initiate an anti-Israeli policy. And given the volatility of the entire region, the international community would rather see a stable, albeit authoritarian, Jordan than another new regime with an unknown foreign policy agenda.

Parliamentary elections are unlikely to bring about groundbreaking domestic or foreign policy changes. Instead, King Abdullah’s survival strategy – his attempt to buy time – may continue to bear fruit.

Last modified on Thursday, 19 February 2015 14:37

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