The Middle East Channel

Jordan’s troubling new parliament

Recent analysis of Jordan’s November parliamentary elections have focused on the odd, sub-district electoral system that further fragmented clans and tribes and resulted in violent clashes between them. While real politics takes place outside the parliament, the 16th parliament is presumed to be "loyalist" due to its overwhelmingly tribal and Transjordanian makeup. However, a conservative ...

AFP/Getty Images
AFP/Getty Images

Recent analysis of Jordan’s November parliamentary elections have focused on the odd, sub-district electoral system that further fragmented clans and tribes and resulted in violent clashes between them. While real politics takes place outside the parliament, the 16th parliament is presumed to be "loyalist" due to its overwhelmingly tribal and Transjordanian makeup.

However, a conservative parliament is by no means good news for the regime. The big majority of politically novice MP’s render the House rather unpredictable, and the fact that there are very few Islamists and Palestinians in it is of no consequence, since the makeup of the previous parliament was not substantially different and it was still dissolved before the end of its term. Moreover, the new parliament is only part of the political equation, as the new government and senate seem to balance it. Finally, the fact that both traditional as well as Transjordanian opposition circles gradually dismiss the political institutions as irrelevant to the management of social and political conflicts is alarming. The new parliament, which granted the government a record vote of confidence, may be another signal of the demise of the old patterns of state-society relations in the Kingdom and the rise of new, dangerous trends.

Election Day itself was a successful show of fair and transparent electoral procedures and saw reasonable voter turnout. However, a close examination of the figures reveals a different story. As of the date of closing the voters registry, some 2.4 million voters were registered, or 55 percent of the 4.3 million eligible voters. Therefore, while the 1.26 million voters comprised indeed a turnout of 53 percent of registered voters, they amounted to less than 30 percent of all eligible voters in the kingdom. All in all, as few as 473,000 citizens, namely 13 percent of eligible voters, voted in favor of the 120 newly elected MP’s. The doubts raised by military veterans on the one hand, and the Muslim Brotherhood on the other hand, regarding the level of representation and even the legitimacy of the new parliament seem, therefore, quite in place.

Two-thirds of Jordan’s 16th Parliament are entirely new faces in the Lower House of Representatives. Official sources estimated that about 12 percent of all voters were Palestinian-Jordanians, and rumor has it that the King had expressed distress and disdain about that. The reasons for Palestinians to avoid the elections were the boycott by the Muslim Brotherhood, which has many Palestinian supporters, as well as concern that any contact with Interior Ministry branches for registration may result in citizenship withdrawal. Notably, not only Transjordanians interpreted the demographic makeup of the new parliament as a subtle recognition of Palestinian-Jordanians of their "guest status" in Jordan.

This said, some interesting occurrences could be observed in the "Palestinian" context of the parliamentary elections. First, four residents of Palestinian refugee camps at the center and north of the kingdom were elected to parliament. Interestingly, three of them are official members of the Fatah movement (including one who made a failed attempt at the elections for the sixth general assembly of Fatah in Ramallah). Further, two of the most popular candidates in the elections were of Palestinian origin: Mijhem al-Sqour, who originates from Beesan/Beit-Shean, representing the poor Jordan Valley area (first place in Jordan), and Khalil Attiyeh, a well-known old time Palestinian-Jordanian politician from Amman (second place).

Faisal al-Fayez, formerly Chief of Royal Court and Prime Minister (October 2003-April 2005) was elected as chair of the new Parliament. Spending much time recently denying his future ‘appointment’ to this position, al-Fayez nonetheless traveled across the kingdom meeting with tribes and asking for their support, as rival candidates gradually withdrew from the race in order to clear the way for him. The Transjordanian opposition considered this an official appointment by the state, and tied this with the amendments to the Election Law that allowed the regime to strengthen the "divide and rule" practices between the tribes.

With this, the regime completed the intentional breaking of the "Abd al-Hadi branch" of the Majali tribe. The long-time chair of parliament, whose relations with the regime was on a downhill slope in recent years given his strong opposition to the liberal elite, was not only impeached, but three brothers from the competing branch of Majali (that of the late Hazza’) were appointed to (or allowed to assume) important political and security positions. It is hard to tell whether these changes in the tribal map of official power centers, and the increasing fragmentation between tribes, will assist the regime in materializing its economic and political strategies. Al-Fayez himself was impeached from the position of Prime Minister in 2005 after colliding with the liberals headed by Dr. Bassem Awadallah.

As is customary following new parliamentary elections, a new government (still headed by Samir al-Rifa’i) was sworn in. The main appointments were for the positions of Deputy Prime Ministers: the two past deputies, senior economic minister Raja’i al-Muasher and the conservative Interior Minister Nayef al-Qadi were removed from office. In their stead, the King’s advisor Aiman al-Safadi was appointed deputy prime minister and spokesperson for the government, and Sa’d Hayel al-Srour was appointed Deputy Prime Minister and Interior Minister. The chair of the Lawyers Association was appointed Minister for Parliamentary Affairs and the old time opposition leader Musa al Ma’ayteh remained the Minister of Political Reform. All these counter-balance somewhat the conservatives in the government and parliament. Observers commented that the new composition of the government is in fact a cocktail of liberals and technocrats hailing from several important tribes represented in the new parliament. It appears that inner regime circles estimate or hope that the current composition of the government, especially after the impeachment of al-Muasher, will promote the passing of controversial economic legislation in parliament that met the objection of the previous House.

Notably, the regime took the opportunity to get rid of the powerful al-Qadi, who was too determined to disenfranchise Palestinians, and may have even worked to undermine al-Srour, claiming that the latter sought to naturalize Palestinians so that they can vote for him. For quite some time, the King has been uneasy with the overly broad interpretation of the "decision of disengagement" from the West Bank (1988) and allegedly even instructed al-Qadi to avoid that. As part of the regime’s counter pressure against the conservatives, data was published "proving" that very few Jordanian women married foreigners, but these data did not detail the number of Jordanian women who married West Bank Palestinians. In any event, the expectations that the new government take a more moderate line regarding the citizenship of Palestinians seem to materialize. Power brokers in the 16th parliament, headed by the new chair, may play a role in this regard, and some new MP’s already declared that they would object to the withdrawal of citizenship from Palestinians.

The new Senate — another common move following parliamentary elections — remains headed by the popular and seasoned politician of Palestinian origin Taher al-Masri. Thirty out of the 60 members of the Upper House are new, while another 28 were members in the last Senate and two others were ministers that were ousted from the government. As a rule, the composition of the Senate constitutes a significant blow to the old elite and the conservatives, and compensation to liberals and Palestinians for their under-representation in the government and parliament. The number of past Prime Ministers declined, and the number of past senior officers from the security establishment, Chiefs of Staff, heads of Mukhabarat and retired generals, was also significantly reduced. Al-Muasher and al-Qadi were not included in the new Senate. Abd al-Majid Dhnebat, the past leader of the Muslim Brotherhood, who is on good terms with the regime, was also included in the Senate composition. He may be facing disciplinary proceedings in the movement, though the likelihood of that is not great at this stage. The fact that the appointed House — also called "the King’s Council" — includes many liberals and Palestinians, and few strong conservatives and senior military and security officials, is a telling one.

The new parliament’s record vote of confidence in the government — 111 of the present 119 members of the House (93 percent) — was the subject of bitter jokes in Jordan, portraying the government’s embarrassment of the ridiculous vote. Some lamented Jordan’s missed opportunity to score a world record as the first constitutional-partisan political system ever to grant a government a unanimous vote of confidence. It appears that most members of parliament were attentive to the state’s standpoint that confronting the government means confronting the King himself, and at any rate did not want to jeopardize the allocation of resources to their constituencies. However, this development, too, is an ominous sign to the demise of Jordan’s hardly-earned patterns of political bargaining, as it marks an underlying assumption that real conflict management does not take place in parliament anymore. Opposition groups, both old and new, might coalesce (the MB’s contacts with military veterans are a good case in point) against the political order or, far worse than that, take their differences to the streets.

Assaf David is a post-doctoral research fellow at the Harry S. Truman Institute for the Advancement of Peace, Hebrew University of Jerusalem. He recently submitted his dissertation on civil-military relations in Jordan under King Hussein and King Abdullah II.

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