On January 23, Jordanians will return to the polls to elect a new parliament. Among the many questions surrounding these polls, of course, is this: Does it matter? Both the 2007 and 2010 elections were marred by extensive charges of rigging, and each produced a lackluster parliament that was disbanded long before its term was up. Many Jordanians complain of economic injustices, corruption in government (especially in terms of business deals connected to privatization), and an electoral and governing system that seems to maintain the status quo. Faith and confidence in the system, in short, are in short supply.
Yet the Jordanian regime has been emphatic that these elections are different. Jordan is different. In my own meetings with King Abdullah, he has consistently argued that Jordan is carving a unique path through the regional Arab Spring: that it is a case of a regime reforming itself. The regime has emphasized that Jordan is at a key turning point, including a shift toward a truer parliamentary system of governance. In an effort to engage public debate and encourage voter participation, the king has even begun publishing a series of brief political treatises. The latest of these, issued this week, addresses the transition to a more parliamentary government.
"After the upcoming elections, we will start piloting a parliamentary government system, including how our prime ministers and Cabinets are selected," the king wrote, "International experience suggests this will require several parliamentary cycles to develop and mature. The key driver of the timeline for this transition is our success in developing national political parties."
Ideally, a prime minister and government would be drawn from the party or parties winning the largest share of seats in parliament. But aside from the Islamic Action Front (IAF), parties are small and weak in Jordan, and most Jordanians belong to no party whatsoever. A transition to a more parliamentary government would therefore require the development of national political parties. That process will clearly take time, the king argued, so for the immediate future the next prime minister may or may not be a member of parliament, but will be based on consultations with the largest blocs that coalesce in parliament after the election. Or, if there is no majority bloc or coalition of blocs, then the palace would consult with all blocs before selecting a prime minister.
The regime sees this slow shift toward parliamentary governments as but the latest step in a series of reforms over the last two years that include amendments to the constitution, new laws on political parties and elections, and the creation of a constitutional court as well as an Independent Electoral Commission (IEC). This week, a committee of leading economists (including reformers) was assembled to investigate every instance of privatization since 1989.
Several questions remain: will Jordanians participate in significant numbers? Will the elections prove fair and free from tampering or from the problems of vote-buying and vote-selling that have marred other recent elections? And in the days after the elections, will a new and stronger form of parliamentary government emerge? If it does, where will its executive powers begin and end, and indeed, where will those of the king begin and end?
These elections and their aftermath should provide at least initial answers to many of these questions. But they also come at a time of severe crisis both domestically and regional. At home, the Jordanian economy has been in such poor shape that austerity measures triggered protests and riots as recently as November 2012. And since subsidies will have to be reduced yet again, raising food and energy prices, similar unrest is likely in the not too distant future. Regionally Jordan is, as always, wedged between several regional conflicts. And while the regime has consistently warned about the dangers of an unresolved Israeli-Palestinian conflict, both government and opposition are deeply concerned over the dangers of the Syria civil war flowing still further over the Jordanian border. The kingdom is already host to more than 200,000 Syrian refugees, even as its own economy is in crisis. The regime’s fears encompass not only the difficulties of an even greater exodus of refugees to Jordan, but also the dangers represented by chemical weapons in Syria and of either Salafi Jihadists or Baathist agents threatening Jordan’s own security.
Yet the planning for elections has proceeded apace. It is in part precisely because of the regional violence and uncertainty that the king has insisted on having elections and getting a new parliament and new government in place. More than 1,500 candidates will contest the 150 parliamentary seats. The electoral law itself was controversial, and met few of the demands of Jordan’s opposition. It includes 108 seats to be decided on the district-based one-person one-vote system; the same system that led to the last several rather unimpressive parliaments. The difference is that this time the quota to guarantee women’s representation has been increased from 12 to 15 seats, and that national lists (and proportional representation voting) will decide the remaining 27 seats. More than 60 national lists will compete for these seats. The Islamist movement will not be among them. As has happened several times in the past, the IAF (the political party affiliated with the Muslim Brotherhood) will boycott the elections. It is joined in the boycott by several small leftist parties and many Hirak or popular youth movements (that have sprung up all over the country in the last two years). "We are against the elections because they are a theatrical gimmick meant to maintain the government’s strong grip on power," IAF leader Hamza Mansour told the Jordanian press, "We call on all Jordanians to boycott the polls."
Yet we can’t really say either that "the opposition" is boycotting the polls or that it is participating. The opposition is divided. So both points are partially true. Some Islamists will contest seats despite their own movement’s ban, while some leftist and nationalist parties will participate in a joint national list.
The job of the IEC meanwhile, has been to restructure the Jordanian election process, regardless of boycotts, participation, or the pros and cons of any electoral law. The head of the IEC, Abdulillah al-Khateeb, is widely regarded as a man of honesty and integrity. In our discussions it was clear that he was well aware of the depth of the challenge to clean up the procedures for registration and of course the electoral process on election day itself. Khateeb has argued that the IEC’s job includes not only these procedural matters, but also the broader issue of restoring public confidence and ensuring participation. The IEC has therefore launched a public relations campaign to encourage participation (including among Jordan’s large youth population) and invited international election observers to ensure that the elections are free and fair. Leading clerics have even backed the IEC’s efforts by issuing Fatwas against vote-buying and vote-selling.
While the efforts of the IEC should be commended, many Jordanians complain that the electoral law itself remains problematic, that districts remain heavily gerrymandered, and that the list of candidates amounts to the usual suspects of Jordanian elections. Posters featuring faces, names, and occasionally an innocuous slogan cover the Jordanian landscape. But both democracy activists and the palace complain that few have clear and detailed platforms, and that platitudes outnumber policy stances. There is actually a danger here. And that is that even if all the above efforts do indeed amount to meaningful reform and change, it will all appear to mean little if — at the end of all these reform efforts — the new parliament looks almost identical to the old parliament. Many reform and democracy activists have chosen not to run, and many not even to vote, yielding the field to the usual candidates: mainly well-to-do men who run as independents (but generally range from centrist to conservative), with extensive tribal ties. It is likely that the clear majority in the new parliament will fit this description. It would be ironic indeed, however, if a more democratic process yields a prime minister that is less reform-oriented that the current PM, Abdullah Ensour, who is widely regarded as somewhat progressive. It will also be problematic, to say the least, because the new government will be expected to push the reform process further: revisiting the electoral law yet again, achieving a clearer balance between branches of government, dealing with the economic crisis, and fighting corruption.
Regime officials have been noticeably frustrated that the regime is not being credited with what they see as a long list of successful reforms. But opposition and democracy activists are similarly frustrated in what they see as considerable movement and noise, but with little actual advancement or meaningful change. Both groups focus on the issue of constitutional monarchy. For the regime, this is all part of a process, lasting more than two years, of a constitutional monarchy reforming itself. For many in the opposition, they too talk of constitutional monarchy, but see it as something that Jordan has yet to achieve, and as an end goal in a reform process that actually started long ago, in 1989, but which has yielded few results. And there is the rub. Is this different? Is this a key turning point for reform in the kingdom, or mere cosmetic change? These elections will not answer these questions entirely, but they — and the exact process of government formation that follows — will go a long way to showing which version of Jordan’s trajectory is more accurate.
Curtis R. Ryan @Curtisryan1 is associate professor of political science at Appalachian State University and author of Jordan in Transition: From Hussein to Abdullah and Inter-Arab Alliances: Regime Security and Jordanian Foreign Policy.