Jordan’s upcoming parliamentary elections, scheduled for January 23, 2013, reflect the enlarging disconnect between palace politics and public discontent.
Having weathered two years of increased political unrest and a protracted economic crisis, King Abdullah continues to project confidence, touting new elections as his hallmark reform.
Instead of ushering in a period of openness, the January 23rd elections may, in fact, perpetuate the status quo, namely, a closed political system dominated by an absolute monarch.
In both the short and long term, this circumstance magnifies the Kingdom’s vulnerabilities and creates an increasingly untenable situation. As tensions heighten and the Jordanian economy continues to sink, new elections may tilt the country toward popular revolt rather than regime reform.
Jordan’s reform process spans more than a decade. Led by the King, it has yielded no substantive policy changes and has sharpened domestic criticism of the monarch.
The centerpiece of this reform is the controversial election law, which introduces a mixed electoral system. Based on the “one-man-one-vote” law, Jordanians will for the first time vote for a closed list of 27 national parliamentary seats in addition to 108 seats for individual, local constituencies.
The January 23rd elections are the first to be based on this new electoral framework. Opposition groups argue that instead of creating a more inclusive system, the new law is regressive and favors the entrenched elite.
By creating smaller voting sub-districts, critics argue the reform favors tribal areas traditionally loyal to the regime while diluting representation from popular opposition districts. Critics desire a larger allocation of seats for the national list and a system of proportional representation for the local district positions.
Citing the unfairness of the contest, several opposition groups have pledged to boycott the elections and have called for demonstrations during election week.
Meanwhile, the Jordanian public seems largely disengaged. The National Democratic Institute’s (NDI) recent pre-election assessment notes general indifference toward the country’s upcoming election from across the political spectrum.
Abdullah’s decision to forge ahead with elections amid waning public confidence and a contentious voting system creates a precarious situation for both election-day events and post-electoral politics.
With little faith in the government’s reformist rhetoric and mounting popular frustrations, the country’s first elections since the Arab uprisings will likely prove to be more eventful in the streets than at the ballot box. Robust demonstrations – with a wide base- will naturally accompany election week. How the state and security forces react to the demonstrators will likely be a pivotal issue and may, in the short term, create an opportunity for volatile protests.
The government’s growing practice of detaining demonstrators en masse signals an increasingly hard line toward dissenters. Human Rights Watch estimates that more than 300 people have been arrested in recent protests around the country. Detainees range from urban Palestinian-Jordanians to semi-rural East Bankers, including activists from Tafileh, the southern governorate considered a loyal bedrock for the monarchy.
The increasing participation of East Banker elements in demonstrations signals growing frustration among a wider segment of the population. Indeed, protests in southern areas (traditional East Banker territory) hold the most potential to trigger greater social and political turmoil in the country.
In addition, the government’s traditional approaches to political appeasement have been loosing force. The release of detainees no longer satisfies opposition groups or tribal families. As such, the possibility of an “iron fist” response –quoting Hussein Majali, Jordan’s police chief – from the government against demonstrators may extinguish the patience of a disgruntled population or provoke a larger show of dissent by the emboldened opposition.
In the longer term, the newly elected government may have to contend with issues of legitimacy stemming from the new electoral system. With an apathetic public, a contentious electoral system, and a sizeable boycott by opposition groups, elections will likely result in a weak Parliament.
In addition, the new government will be tasked with implementing an ambitious set of austerity measures. Late last year, Jordan entered into an agreement with the IMF that ties aid to a strict public consolidation program.
Under this arrangement, Jordan is to implement an austerity program that includes electricity tariffs and deep cuts to fuel subsidies. Last month, Prime Minister Abdullah Ensour announced that even the government’s direct cash assistance to the poorest citizens may be removed.
This impending burden on the livelihood of average Jordanians may bring Abdullah’s government to the precipice. Evidenced by historic protests, fuel price hikes and cuts to the public sector widen the base of political dissent and sharpen demands for political change.
More broadly, the economic outlook for Jordan’s aid-dependent budget remains sobering. Current government ministers have bet the economy’s recovery on substantial assistance from Gulf countries – which has yet to materialize- and have assumed that the government will spend no further on the near 300,000 Syrian refugees living in the country who cost the government an estimated $150 million last year.
Should any of these potential pitfalls come to pass, the government would be hard fought to find a remedy. Abdullah’s reversal of subsidy reforms is not an option and another dismissal of the government appears unlikely – such a development would display political weakness and communicate a contradictory message about the much-praised election reforms.
In sum, the January 23rd parliamentary vote fails to signal a shift toward a more open political system in Jordan. Rather, it serves as a potential rallying cry for opposition groups and will likely create a weak government tasked with implementing grievous austerity measures.
While Abdullah heralded elections as the key turning point for reform, the “new” electoral framework suggests business as usual. The newly elected government will likely lack legitimacy and continue the dangerous monotony that characterizes the country’s palace politics. This year’s menu of austerity measures may be the final poisoned pill for the new government or even for King Abdullah himself as the Hashemite Kingdom struggles to prevent a slide into a “Jordanian Spring”.
*Que Mykte’ Newbill is a Scoville Fellow and Research Analyst with the Middle East Program at the Stimson Center in Washington D.C., where his work examines the Arab world’s shifting political landscape with a particular focus on Jordan’s reform movement. Prior to this, he lived in Jordan and worked at the Center for Strategic Studies in Amman.