The Middle East Channel

Jordan’s new electoral law: reform, reaction, or status quo?

Jordan finally unveiled its new electoral system last week, after long months of anxious speculation and promises that the new law — passed after the early dissolution of parliament — would demonstrate the regime’s commitment to liberal reforms. Reviews from Jordanian reformists have been devastating, however, with the new law described as everything from “disappointing” ...

AFP/Getty Images
AFP/Getty Images

Jordan finally unveiled its new electoral system last week, after long months of anxious speculation and promises that the new law — passed after the early dissolution of parliament — would demonstrate the regime’s commitment to liberal reforms. Reviews from Jordanian reformists have been devastating, however, with the new law described as everything from “disappointing” to “a disaster.” Their dismay is easy to understand.  While the new law does make some key changes that reformers were demanding, it is not at all transformative and at most makes some minor adjustments to the status quo.  Given the realities of monarchical power within Jordanian politics, however, the details of parliamentary elections are not really the main point. The new law touches upon a much deeper struggle over identity politics within Jordan — an identity politics whose most defiant and demonstrative voice is not at all rooted in the “usual suspects” of Palestinian or Islamist opposition, but rather in the ruling Transjordanian elite itself. Its implications will be felt not only on domestic change in Jordan, but also on the attempts to resolve the broader Israeli-Palestinian conflict in the region.

Like the election laws which came before it, the new law is a temporary measure designed to set the ground rules for the parliamentary elections scheduled for late this fall. This follows the November 2009 dissolution of parliament — two years before the completion of its term. That move was met with surprisingly little opposition, but rather with a certain palpable relief, given the widespread belief across Jordanian society that the parliament was hopelessly ineffective and that corruption had become endemic. The regime has tilted more consistently in a conservative direction over the last few years, essentially siding with the more reactionary traditional elite over the reformers. It periodically provides small elements of reform and change to keep those reformers (and foreign critics) at bay, usually with new slogans and marketing campaigns having more prominence than the actual reforms. As one disappointed reform activist told me recently, the monarchy’s “words are with the reformers, but its actions are for the status quo.”

When King Abdullah II appointed a new government following the dissolution of parliament, he charged it with producing a new and improved electoral law and carrying forth the reform process. Yet the actual appointments sent different signals. The new deputy prime minister tasked with implementing reform was Rajai Muasher, a vocal opponent of the liberalization and reform process. As prime minister, the king appointed Samir Rifai, scion of a powerful, conservative, and consummate insider family. Indeed Rifai became the fourth member of his family to serve as prime minister since Jordan’s independence.

The Rifai government unveiled its new electoral law in anticipation of parliamentary elections this fall. The new law responds to some key reformist demands by adding four more seats specifically in Amman, Irbid, and Zarqa — all major cities with large Palestinian populations and all historically underrepresented in parliament. Also of importance, the regime doubled the quota for women’s representation (introduced in the 2007 election) from six to 12 parliamentary seats. The law also maintains the practice of guaranteed representation for key minority groups, with nine seats reserved for Christians and three more for Jordan’s Circassian or Cherkess minority.

The law does not, however, address any of the many proposals to strengthen political parties in Jordanian politics. It maintains the one-person, one-vote system — which virtually every reformist trend has called to change since its adoption in 1993 —  and eschews any attempt to shift toward proportional representation or party lists. Instead, the law adds more parliamentary seats (from 110 to 120 overall) and changes the current electoral districts to electoral “zones,” each of which is broken down into multiple subdistricts. Voters will be able to vote for one candidate in any subdistrict (within their designated electoral zone) that they choose.

What is noticeably missing, therefore, is implementation of one of the main recommendations of the much-heralded National Agenda of 2005. The National Agenda commission was a broad-based group appointed by the king and charged with creating the architecture for political and economic reform in the kingdom for years to come. Its recommendations had tackled the issue of electoral reform by specifically attempting to curb “tribalism” and instead encourage more nationally oriented parties. It had proposed a gradual shift in the electoral system, maintaining district representation, while also adding elements of proportional representation and party lists. Variations on this general idea have been pushed by key opposition groups as well. Jordan’s large Islamist movement, for example, has consistently argued that Jordan’s electoral laws are routinely used to dampen the more “natural” strength and support they believe they would enjoy in a fairer system.

Instead, the 2010 elections will be contested in a way that, despite the minor reforms, should minimize the development of political parties and encourage localized rather than national voting. It should also ensure a parliament that is once again largely elected based on tribal linkages, far outweighing whatever strength the democratic opposition is able to muster. And that is, of course, precisely the point. Why? If the regime dissolved parliament because of its alleged dissatisfaction with its conservative tendencies, why create a law which reproduces the same likely outcomes? What, exactly, do the status quo elites who demanded this approach think they are doing? 

The answer is that they think they are securing the regime and even the nation against urgent foreign and domestic challenges to the very nature and identity of Jordan as a Hashemite state. The battle over the new election law, like so much in Jordanian politics, is permeated by the demographic and political battles over the role of its citizens of Palestinian origin and the prospects of an eventual Palestinian state. Every move that Israel’s far-right government makes seems to dim prospects for a Palestinian state and a two-state solution. This, in turn, has led many in Jordan’s largely East Bank or Transjordanian political elite to fear that Israel still intends to resolve its Palestinian problem at Jordanian expense. Jordan’s most powerful right-wing elements have therefore mobilized to avoid that outcome at any cost. These fears have even led groups of retired officers to publish unprecedented critiques of perceived government weakness in addressing these concerns.

While Israeli policy has clearly aggravated fears on the Jordanian right, so too has the domestic reform process. Economic liberalization and privatization have empowered Jordan’s largely Palestinian business class, alienating many East Bank Jordanian families whose power base had been in large state-run industries. Similarly, political liberalization has provided moderate electoral successes for Jordan’s Islamist movement, alarming Jordan’s conservative secular elites. Given that Islamist electoral strength is based heavily in urban Palestinian districts, these are actually mutually reinforcing fears. In each case there is a pervasive sense — among reactionary elites at least — that Jordan’s real identity is being steadily undermined both from the outside and from within.

Indeed, these status quo elites see destabilization and insecurity everywhere they look: to the west in Israel and Palestine, to the east in Iraq, within the economy as Jordan too is affected by the global downturn, and even in domestic politics as external conflicts have brought terrorism within Jordan itself (in the form of the Amman suicide bombings on Nov. 9, 2005, by al Qaeda in Iraq militants). For these reasons, Jordan’s most reactionary elites — with strong bases in the armed forces and intelligence services — are playing ever greater roles in Jordanian politics and producing the duality of considerable moderation in foreign policy, while also pursuing more reactionary policies aimed at minimizing reform at home.

As these identity, policy, and reform debates continue, it is clear that the forces of the status quo have the upper hand. This is not, however, without cost. Expectations of real and lasting reform were very high a decade ago. Now each great new reform initiative is greeted with disappointment by the general public. The general level of disillusionment can be expected to carry over into the 2010 parliamentary elections, and the regime will therefore get the conservative, traditional, tribalistic, and pro-regime parliament that it wants. But it would be a mistake to underestimate the level of domestic discontent boiling just below the surface, especially as it seems to increase with each new initiative of “reform.”  

Curtis R. Ryan 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.

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