The Middle East Channel

Identity and the Jordanian elections

The period of Arab uprisings that began in winter 2010 to 2011 has brought myriad changes to the region. However, one perennial constant is the willingness of official and semi-official elements in Jordan to manipulate identity issues in order to stymie meaningful reform. Indeed, given the past history of the Jordanian government, the most recent ...


The period of Arab uprisings that began in winter 2010 to 2011 has brought myriad changes to the region. However, one perennial constant is the willingness of official and semi-official elements in Jordan to manipulate identity issues in order to stymie meaningful reform. Indeed, given the past history of the Jordanian government, the most recent developments could be viewed as simply boring, were they not so deeply cynical and destructive.

The newest chapter in this ongoing saga of who is a Jordanian — native East Bankers, certainly; Jordanians of Palestinian origin, not so much or perhaps not at all — has come in response to the upcoming parliamentary elections. With only a few exceptions, most notably in 1956 and 1989, elections in Jordan have been highly controlled affairs, in which the outcomes have been largely cooked beforehand, either through changes in the electoral law (as in 1993), or through outright fraud (most notably, but certainly not exclusively, in 1997 and 2007). On occasion, when it is argued that "regional conditions" are problematic, elections have been postponed, as in the early 2000s, and in many cases some of the most significant opposition forces, most recently the Muslim Brotherhood, have decided to boycott rather than play the palace’s or security forces’ game. 

King Abdullah’s response to the domestic impact of the winds of discontent sweeping the region has been to call for several key "reforms." The most important among them has been amending the constitution and revising the electoral law — all in the context of the usual palace response to domestic unhappiness: the dismissal of four prime ministers in less than two years. Among the 2011 constitutional amendments, the most potentially significant for the holding of elections was the establishment of an independent electoral commission to oversee the process of registration and voting, chaired by the respected former Foreign Minister Abdul Ilah al-Khatib. However, the electoral law itself, for which there had been great hopes of significant change, was modified only at the margins. The primary opposition demand had been the return to a multiple-vote system in place in 1989, which allowed electors to vote not only for a tribal or clan candidate, but also for other candidates who might represent a more political or ideological choice. Instead, the one-person, one-vote system, which was first implemented in 1993 to reduce the representation in parliament of Islamists, was amended only to the extent that now 27 seats are set aside for national lists, while the total number of parliamentary seats was increased from 120 to 150.

This designation of national list seats, along with the increase in the number of seats in several urban districts, was a kind of consolation prize for Jordanians of Palestinian origin (JPs). This is because they are heavily concentrated in these districts, they are seen as the primary constituency for more ideological parties (especially the Muslim Brotherhood’s Islamic Action Front), and because the current configuration of electoral districts and the seats allotted to them significantly underrepresents JPs in parliament. This underrepresentation is but one aspect of JP second class citizenship, and there have been increasing calls, indeed unparalleled ones, since the beginning of what the king likes to call the "Jordanian spring" to redress this citizenship deficit.

That kind of reform, however, is an outcome that certain segments of the Transjordanian population find intolerable. Indeed, it was apparently members of the so-called old guard and other "traditional powers" that were responsible in 2011 for pressuring the National Dialogue committee, which was looking into possible changes in the electoral law, to ignore calls for allowing Jordanian expatriates (the majority of whom are JPs) to vote from abroad. More dangerous, however, have been increasing calls from the more extreme voices in these sectors for actually disenfranchising JPs altogether. Some calls have come from ultra-nationalist retired military officers; others have come from Transjordanians who otherwise fancy themselves "leftists." (Only in Jordan could those who call for discriminating against fellow citizens, indeed, for depriving them of their already second-class citizenship status, be considered leftists simply because they criticize neoliberal economic policies.) 

Historically, the justification for concern about full integration of JPs into Jordan derived from the fear that the Israeli government would use such a development to claim that Jordan was in fact the Palestinian state, and that therefore there was no need for a "second Palestinian state" in the West Bank and Gaza. Indeed, in 1989, it was rumored that Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO) chairman Yasir Arafat had urged JPs not to participate in the elections, precisely for this reason. Over time, the concern that Israel would stymie a peace settlement on the grounds that a Palestinian state already existed in Jordan (known as the alternative homeland, al-watan al-badil), has been transmogrified into an expectation among some Transjordanians that Jordan will become largely free of Palestinians in the context of a two-state solution. Zionist policies and threats over the years have played a major role in heightening Jordanian sensitivities regarding the alternative homeland (al-watan al-badil) scenario. Yet, it is also the case that the al-watan al-badil threat is trotted out virtually any time one political faction or another seeks to discredit a particular political or economic proposal. The threat has been used most recently implicitly to call into question the legitimacy of JP political rights, and has, thereby played a major role in the relative absence of Palestinians (except as part of the Muslim Brotherhood) from opposition demonstrations.

The elections scheduled for January 23 have been billed by the palace as a centerpiece in the king’s reform process which is received so warmly during his appearances on the Daily Show and in interviews with the western press and diplomats, (although Abdullah also regularly stresses in such settings that Jordan and Jordanians are not yet ready for full democracy). He and other officials have repeatedly insisted that the January 2013 elections will be free and fair as a way of reinforcing his commitment to real reform and securing domestic legitimation for his approach through a respectable turnout. The first step toward ultimately claiming success required securing sufficient registration numbers, and when potential voters did not initially flock to register — in part because the Muslim Brotherhood had announced its intention to boycott the elections, but also, likely, because of past experience with fraud and the futility of the exercise — repeated exhortations were made, many arms were likely twisted, and ultimately, the deadline was extended and the vote postponed by two months.

It was certainly a sign of the regime’s desperation that, during the process of trying to legitimize the vote through respectable voter inscription, the state turned to JPs, the sector which it has often otherwise found expendable; the sector which has seen arbitrary passport withdrawals continue, despite claims of royal opposition to the practice. In need of support, government officials targeted the JP refugee camps, urging the camp leadership to mobilize the residents to register. Ultimately the national registration numbers reached 2.3 million, well beyond the government’s 2 million goal.

Now, with only days remaining before the vote, the palace and the government are keen to ensure a robust turnout, and to do so they need JP support. To that end Prime Minister Abdallah Ensour recently met with a delegation of mukhtars and other notables from the refugee camps who issued a statement urging camp residents to participate in the upcoming vote. That expression of citizenship was welcomed by, indeed, certainly solicited by the government. Yet only a few days earlier, Nsour had referred to refugee camps residents as Palestinians, not Jordanians. Those statements were no doubt intended to resonate well with the Transjordanian sector of the population eager for the ultimate evacuation of these JP camp residents from "their" country.

The elections on January 23 offer insights into a variety of critical issues facing the kingdom, the most important of which is what they portend for the development of real citizenship, regardless of social class, gender, religion, or communal origin. A betting (wo)man would be well advised to place her or his money on an outcome of little to no serious change, in no small measure because the actions of the palace speak louder than its words. The election law virtually guarantees that the same set of forces that have participated in the regime’s strategy of minimal or cosmetic reform will once again be elected. Indeed, the palace’s policy seems aimed today, as it has been in most previous elections, at avoiding uncertainty of outcome. Yet uncertainty is a central part of any true democratic process.

The continued instrumentalization of JPs (and of Transjordanians, but that is a story for another day) is just one manifestation of the lack of serious commitment to reform, a form of debilitating legal-political corruption deliberately aimed at undermining the possibilities for real national unity to address the daunting political and economic challenges ahead. Sadly, proclamations of commitment to reform notwithstanding, there is little reason to think that the decades-old strategy of promoting national disunity as a pillar of regime maintenance will be revisited or revised any time soon.

Laurie A. Brand is the Robert Grandford Wright Professor and Professor of International Relations at the University of Southern California. Fayez Hammad is lecturer in the Department of Political Science and the School of International Relations at the University of Southern California.

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