Who won Jordan’s election? It’s in the eye of the beholder

The low turnout in the election – just 37% – appears to be a blow to King Abdullah’s project of democratization and reform.

King Abdullah (photo credit: REUTERS)
King Abdullah
(photo credit: REUTERS)
Those in Jordan and beyond who feared a possible major advance for the Muslim Brotherhood in last Tuesday’s parliamentary elections have reason to be relieved.
But the brotherhood can also be satisfied that with the election it has taken a first step on a long path of rebuilding its legitimacy and relevance in Jordan.
The political arm of the brotherhood, the Islamic Action Front and its allies running as the National Alliance for Reform, won 17 out of the 130 seats. The number is below predictions but enough to make it the only real political opposition in a parliament made up largely of tribal and independent deputies who support the monarchy. The election by itself is unlikely to dramatically change the tradition of parliament being a largely uninfluential institution that is at best a sounding chamber for limited criticism of regime policies.
For the regime, the brotherhood’s showing is manageable, a far cry from 1989 results in which the Islamic Action Front scored more than a quarter of parliament’s seats, which then numbered 80. Daoud Kuttab, a columnist for The Jordan Times, predicted Saturday that the Islamic Action Front, which opposes Jordan’s peace treaty with Israel, could become a “nuisance” to the government, but would not have a real impact on its policies.
“In the past they’ve usually been disciplined and very sensitive on any issue touching on morality, women or drinking,” he told The Jerusalem Post. “Last time they attended all sessions on moral issues. On the Palestine issue they will speak out strongly. But they won’t bring down the government or ministers.”
The presence of the Islamic Action Front in parliament will enable the regime to show at home and abroad that the political system has a degree of pluralism. Twenty women deputies were elected, five beyond the quota set for them. Ma’an, a list that may be Jordan’s equivalent of Meretz with its espousal of separating politics and religion, scored two seats.
Despite doing worse than predicted, the Brotherhood has reason to be satisfied with the election. As a result of its decision not to participate in two previous elections, internal splits encouraged by the regime, and regional factors such as the ouster from power in Egypt of its sister movement, the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood, it had become a less relevant player on the Jordanian scene. Now it will have a platform to promote itself which could enable it to rebuild its support depending on the image it creates among the public.
The low turnout in the election – just 37% – appears to be a blow to King Abdullah’s project of democratization and reform from above that he has touted since the Arab Spring in 2011. At the time there were demonstrations demanding reforms and greater democracy in Jordan.
The king and government responded by establishing national commissions to propose reforms and revise the constitution, laws on political parties and elections, amendments to the constitution, and establishing a constitutional court, an anti-corruption commission and an independent electoral commission.
Critics argued that these were cosmetic changes that did not entail any real lessening of the monarchy’s grip on power.
High turnout would have given the government ammunition to argue that the public endorses the reform process and that it is seen as genuine.
In the regime’s defense it can be argued that even the low turnout is really in the eye of the beholder since in absolute terms 1.5 million voters turned out this time compared to 1.2 million in 2013. The regime is arguing that under the circumstances of regional instability and civil wars swirling around Jordan in Syria and Iraq, the very holding of an election is a remarkable achievement.
Along these lines, Sufyan al-Shawa, a lawyer, wrote Saturday in Amman’s Ad-Dustour newspaper, which is close to the monarchy, that Jordan is “an oasis of safety at a time when around us a citizen leaves his house in the morning but doesn’t know if he will return home to his wife and children.”
“The Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan with its wise Hashemite leadership has proven it is the oasis of democracy in the region, respecting the constitution and safeguarding its parliamentary system, Shawa wrote. “Elections were held in all parts of the kingdom fairly and transparently and without government interference. This affirms to those who want to know that Jordan is a democratic country that believes in parliamentary life and adheres to elections.”