Voting in Jordan: A step to democracy or a show for the regime?

"If anything, the parliamentary system has largely operated as a disservice to the people, providing no real opposition to the appointed government or state policies."

Jordan's King Abdullah speaks at the Munich Security Conference in Munich, Germany, February 12, 2016 (photo credit: REUTERS)
Jordan's King Abdullah speaks at the Munich Security Conference in Munich, Germany, February 12, 2016
(photo credit: REUTERS)
Jordanians are scheduled to go to the polls Tuesday to elect a new parliament, and there is much at stake for both the palace and the Muslim Brotherhood, which is trying to make a comeback as a significant opposition force.
For the palace, the voting is seen as a key step in projecting that its much-touted reform process is a viable pathway to greater democratization, in a country where the parliament has been criticized for being a rubber stamp for the monarchy, or at best a sounding chamber for limited criticism of the government.
King Abdullah is hoping for high turnout, in order to show that there is faith in the reform process he launched in 2011, after Arab Spring protests in the region and demonstrations demanding change and greater democracy – though not regime overthrow – in Jordan.
“These are the first polls since 2013 and the regime wants the process to be seen as moving forward,” wrote Curtis Ryan, a political scientist at Appalachian State University in North Carolina and the author of Jordan in Transition: From Hussein to Abdullah, in an email interview with The Jerusalem Post. “Especially low turnout would be a blow to the regime’s own carefully crafted image of reform from above, since it would suggest low levels of public enthusiasm or confidence in the system.”
A poll by RASED, the Civil Coalition for Monitoring Jordan’s Elections, that was published in mid-July showed that only 31.5% of 1,800 eligible voters surveyed plan to participate, with 39.5% saying they will stay away.
A subsequent International Republican Institute poll helped explain the aversion to voting. It found that 87% of respondents agreed with the statement that parliament “has not accomplished anything worthy of commendation” during its term.
Small wonder, then, that King Abdullah used a recent interview with the Amman-based Ad-Dustour newspaper to call on citizens to head to the polls in large numbers. “Real reform begins with the citizen himself the moment he takes the decision to participate in the parliamentary election and chooses the appropriate candidate to represent him in parliament,” he said.
As Ryan has noted in his writings, what the regime touted as a reform process entailed establishing national committees and commissions to propose reforms and revise the constitution, new laws on elections and political parties, amendments to the constitution, and establishing a constitutional court, an anti-corruption commission and an independent electoral commission. But critics argue that these were cosmetic changes that do not entail any real lessening of the monarchy’s grip on power.
Now the regime may have even less incentive to devolve power than it did in 2011. With the region all around rocked by instability – and civil wars raging in neighboring Syria and Iraq – many Jordanians are simply relieved their country hasn’t been plunged into chaos. Jordan is playing an active role in the coalition against ISIS, and that battle has grabbed attention. For many, the idea of ambitious reforms has somewhat receded for now.
To be sure, the country faces fateful issues that in a more democratic society could be addressed at the ballot box, including what to do about the Syrian refugees in Jordan (more than 630,000 registered refugees and estimates of a roughly equal number who are not registered) and how to address soaring youth unemployment, which the International Labor Organization puts at 28%.
The problem is that parliament is not equipped or allowed to really deal with these or other challenges. The progressive Jordanian blog Black Iris wrote in a commentary on the election that “How vital the Lower House is in the grand scheme of governance is debatable.”
“This remains a country in which a single person holds executive command, with government policy operating under the umbrella of the security machinery that drives it all.
While in theory the role of the Lower House has been to represent the voice of constituents, reality has consistently suggested that the Lower House has acted as a first line of defense for the state, allowing it a) protection from responsibility or accountability in public policy failure (because parliament voted for it and people voted for those representatives) and b) a space in which limited critique can be aired, safely contained and co-opted if need be.”
“If anything, the parliamentary system has largely operated as a disservice to the people, providing no real opposition to the appointed government or state policies,” Black Iris continued.
It concluded that under the circumstances, maybe the best thing to do on election day is to stay away.
Stakes will also be high on Tuesday for the Muslim Brotherhood, which decided to contest this election after boycotting the last two parliamentary contests on the grounds that the system was rigged against it and that there had been electoral fraud. The Brotherhood’s assent came after the election law was amended to change the voting system from one man one vote into a list system in which voters choose both a list and a candidate within that list.
The Brotherhood’s political wing, the Islamic Action Front, won an impressive 22 out of 80 seats in 1989 election, but its decision not to participate in the recent polls, internal splits encouraged by the regime and regional factors such as the ousting from power in Egypt of its sister movement, the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood, made it appear to be a less relevant player on the Jordanian scene. The election will be a test of its popularity.
“The election is a way for them to restore their legitimacy, they want to be a player,” says Daoud Kuttab, a columnist for The Jordan Times. Far from campaigning on the provocative slogan “Islam is the solution,” the Islamic Action Front is running its people on joint lists with Christians and other non-Islamist candidates as the National Alliance for Reform.
“They are extremely pragmatic in their approach and they are lowering their ideological footprints to get a bigger showing in parliament,” Kuttab says.
He added that when the regime canceled the candidacy of a senior Islamic Action Front leader, Ali Abu Sukar, the Islamic Action Front did not let that derail their campaign. “They bit their tongues and took that in stride and continued in the election, because they are trying to make sure they are not pushed aside,” Kuttab said.
Analysts are predicting that Islamists will win 20 out of 130 seats in parliament.
A strong showing by the Islamic Action Front will fuel calls on the regime to suspend relations with Israel, says Oded Eran, former Israeli ambassador to Jordan and now an analyst at the Institute for National Strategic Studies.
“If the Muslim Brotherhood does well, it will express itself in calls by elected people to have more debate on the whole file of relations with Israel. When there are Israeli actions in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, the regime will face more vociferous opposition in parliament,” he said.
“The regime will be called on to express more stringent statements on Israeli conduct in the territories. But I don’t think the regime will adhere to calls from parliament to suspend relations with Israel, remove the Israeli ambassador from Amman or recall the Jordanian ambassador to Tel Aviv.”
From the regime’s viewpoint, the election is important so that it can show the world that a fair democratic process was conducted, Eran says.
“This is very important for the regime in the daily campaign they conduct to get international assistance to Jordan.
The question of financial and security assistance is an existential one for Jordan.”