The Middle East Channel

Jordan’s boycott and tomato woes

Jordan’s boycott and tomato woes

The parliamentary elections slated for Tuesday to replace the body dissolved late last year have not exactly set the Kingdom’s political life onfire.  Some Jordanians will undoubtedly go to the polls to vote.  But there is no election fever, and flaccid election campaigns have mostly avoided reference to the Kingdom’s political and economic woes.  The government launched a massive get-out-the-vote effort to counter widespread apathy, but citizens — if they talk about the elections at all — seem most excited by the possibility of winning a car. Popular support for the boycott now coordinated by the largest political party, the Islamic Action Front, and the smaller leftist Jordanian Popular Unity Party (Wihda) remains uncertain, but the boycott shows that at least some Jordanians are rejecting the charade of democratic elections.

Freedom House downgraded Jordan’s rating from "Partly Free" to "Not free" in January, largely due to King Abdullah II’s early dissolution of the last parliament in November 2009.  The regime has since been eager to repair its image and signal that Jordan is back on the democratization track.  But most Jordanians now view the parliament as more of a tribal assembly than one that represents the citizenry, and a weak turnout at the polls will further challenge the regime’s proto-democratic credentials. Outside of elite circles, Jordanians are not talking about the election at all; they are talking about the skyrocketing price of tomatoes, which peaked a few weeks ago at two Jordanian dinars (JD) a kilo, 10 times higher than normal.  This vibrant public debate demonstrates that Jordanians can indeed be engaged in politics, but the regime has been unable to capture that energy.

Decisions to participate or boycott in elections offer a window into Jordan’s political development. Two decades ago, Jordan was a model for political liberalization in the Arab world. King Hussein called for elections in 1989 in response to riots against unpopular IMF economic reforms.  But Jordan paid dearly for refusing tosupport the US-led and UN-sanctioned coalition to oust Iraqi troops from Kuwait in 1990-91: the United States and several Gulf nations severed aid to the Kingdom, and hundreds of thousands of Jordanian migrant workers were sent home.  To restore relations with Washington, King Hussein offered his most valuable prize: peace with Israel.  Because a treaty would need approval from the parliament, the regime devised a new elections law to return a compliant assembly in 1993; all political groups participated, despite their concerns about the new rules, the opposition’s presence declined, and the 1994 Wadi Araba treaty was signed a year later.

Jump to the 1997 elections.  The regime made only minor changes to the unpopular elections law, preserving the "sawt wahid" system — one person, one vote — which sounds reasonable but in practice has ensured that local notables and tribal elites have considerable advantages over political parties. Combined with a districting system that under-represents regions with large Palestinian populations, the regime de facto disenfranchised most voices critical of its political and economic policies. This time, a broad coalition of parties launched a boycott, which also condemned changes to the press and publications law that forced some two-dozen political newspapers to close until they could raise substantial amounts of capital required by that law. Supported by two former prime ministers, the boycott captured the reasonable and widespread fear — correct, it turns out — that Jordan was becoming yet another authoritarian state holding meaningless elections.

The 1997 boycott failed to pressure the regime to change the elections law, though the press and publications law was revised after being found unconstitutional by the Court of Cassation in early 1998. From the perspective of the Islamic Action Front, the 1997 boycott was a particular failure, as it saw moderate Islamists isolated from the political system until the next election (which came only in 2003, after King Abdullah postponed elections in 2001).  The IAF expelled six party members for violating that boycott by running in the elections.  But ironically, the two successful candidates became the Islamists’ only connection to the assembly.  Having learned that exclusion from the assembly is not desirable, why has the IAF decided to boycott again this year?

Part of the reason is the widely acknowledged (except by the regime) electoral fraud in 2007 — which saw the IAF’s 16 seats from the 2003 vote reduced to six seats (with no other party winning any seats at all).  In 1997, enough pressure might have forced the regime to restore components of the elections law that provided for real competition, giving political parties a chance to compete against prominent tribal leaders.  Today the democratic opening of the early 1990s is a distant memory.  IAF leaders were divided on whether to boycott, split along an internal moderate-hardliner fissure that has troubled the IAF party as well as the Muslim Brotherhood for at least two years.  Both the IAF and the Brothers polled their membership and nearly 75 percent favored a boycott. Ironically — and not for the first time — Jordan’s moderate Islamists engaged in more substantive democratic practices than has the regime.  The IAF repeatedly asked the regime to consider substantive revisions that might reintroduce real political competition and dialogue, but to no avail.

A few IAF members have again defied the boycott and registered as candidates.  At least seven IAF candidates and three Muslim Brotherhood candidates — the latter also voted to boycott the elections — face expulsion from those organizations. TheIAF/Muslim Brotherhood ban on its members participating has been largely resolute, although one female Islamist running in Jerash, Seham Bani Mustafa, has not yet been threatened with expulsion.  Like other Islamist candidates, she has positioned herself on a tribal platform and is hoping to vie for one of the 12 women’s quota seats.

The Wihda party launched its boycott independently of the IAF, specifically targeting students and younger voters.  Its "Boycotters for Change" campaign has sought to reach Jordanian youths largely through the Internet and a Facebook page, although its visibility in Jordan has been limited to a few small events and newspaper coverage.  One boycott event coordinated with the IAF resulted in the arrest of some dozen protesters, although a similar protest outside of Parliament this past Saturday ended peacefully even though the governor had denied a permit for the event.  The presence of international election monitors likely affected the decision of the security services to exercise restraint. 

For its part, the Jordanian government has been struggling to get out the vote, launching its own youth-targeted campaign, "Let’s Hear Your Voice."  The voice that the government is hearing, however, is not that of a citizenry excited about elections.  Save for newspaper articles  —  which have been consistently enthusiastic about the upcoming poll —  few people in Jordan other than candidates and the boycotters are talking about the elections at all.  What they are talking about is tomatoes. 

Jordanians are estimated to consume some 800 tons of tomatoes per day.  Prices have soared as a result of both extraordinary summer heat and the spread of an invasive moth, Tuta Absoluta, which likely entered Jordan from Egypt around the end of 2009. This summer’s yield was an abysmal 50 percent of average, although fortunately the pest did not spread to the Jordan Valley or to Irbid in the North.  The Minister of Agriculture, Mazen Khasawneh, announced renewed efforts to protect uninfected areas and to aid areas hit worst, pledging JD 1.7 million toward the eradication of the pest, JD 350,000 (USD $493,300) this year, and JD 1.35 million (USD $1.9 million) next year.  But Jordanians have been less than impressed, as market prices remain high and pesticides are simply too expensive for many farmers.

Despite the tomato shortage, the kingdom has continued to export some 550 tons of tomatoes daily.  To meet its domestic needs, it has also been forced to import tomatoes, which many Jordanians imagine to be the very tomatoes the kingdom exported. On October 1, Consumer Protection Society president Mohammad Obeidat called on the Ministry of Agriculture to entirely halt tomato exports in order to lower domestic prices, which are not likely to stabilize until the Jordan River valley crops enter the market in mid-December. Whether or not Jordanians are actually buying back their own tomatoes sent abroad, the pitch of anger and frustration at the government’s inability to stabilize prices has led to some of the most vibrant public debates about policy in years.           

Indeed, debate is animated not only among newspaper columnists but also in the blogosphere and printed political satire. Since September, Imad Hajjaj’spopular "Mahjoob" comic strip has drawn five references to tomato crisis. One cartoon published October 1 depicts a doctor beside a bandaged and bruised patient. The doctor asks his patient what has happened, and the patient explains that the local produce prices have caused his condition. Another from October 17 depicts two men walking past political banners that appear to advertise large tomatoes, noting the similarity between shopping for tomatoes and politicians.  And a cartoon from October 19 juxtaposes a government propagandist and a street tomato seller — the former declaring that the boycotter will be sorry, while the latter suggests that it is the poor who will be sorry.  The cartoons reflect both the immense distrust of government and the widening gap between Jordanians and the regime. 

Thus as some Jordanians go to the polls next week to elect a new parliament, the regime will be hoping that the spectacle of election day — complete with multiple international monitoring teams, the first in Jordan’s history — will quell domestic discontent while re-earning a "Partly Free" rating from Freedom House.  Steadfast in their boycott, Jordan’s moderate Islamists are nonetheless concerned about losing what little remaining political power they have; a great deal is riding on their ability to mobilize their sizable constituency to boycott.  Looking ahead, the Muslim Brotherhood and Wihda party have announced the formation of anational pro-reform coalition calling for substantive political reforms.  Their more radical approach to delegitimizing the newly elected government aims, in part, to demand that the assembly and the regime live up to the promise of the constitution and National Agenda: that Jordan is a constitutional monarchy in which the elected assembly plays a major legislative role.  In this sense, the success of the boycott in limiting voter turnout may be a crucial indicator of the potential support for an impending conflict between the regime and this new reform movement.

Meanwhile, the current electoral system — favoring tribal candidates and under-representing a majority of the population — is tearing at the social fabric of Jordanian society, bringing tensions between Jordanians of Palestinian origin and those with East Bank roots to a boiling point.  For more than a year, tribal clashes have spread into urban areas where such violence was seldom known.  As long as the parliament is viewed asmore of a tribal council than a democratic assembly, these tensions are only going to worsen. In this sense the boycott tells us a great deal about how Jordanians see the elections, and perhaps stands as a more authentically democratic political act than participation in meaningless elections.  Either way, the deputies elected in Tuesday’s poll will undoubtedly enjoy the fruits of their offices, while average Jordanians will once again get stuck with the check.

Jillian Schwedler is Associate Professor of Political Science at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, and author of Faithin Moderation: Islamist Parties in Jordan and Yemen. Josh Sowalsky is a graduating senior in the Commonwealth Honors College of the University of Massachusetts, Amherst.