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Jordan: deep divisions, increased concern

Sharif Nashashibi

Published: Updated:

An opposition boycott, a controversial election law, allegations of fraud, a dispute over turnout, and vows of further street protests seem to have dashed King Abdullah’s hopes that Jordan’s parliamentary vote in January would relieve growing public frustration over the pace and extent of reforms.


The results point to a parliament once again dominated by pro-regime loyalists, but this is no cause for celebration by the king. It will widen the country’s political divisions, and further anger those who believe that nothing has changed, and that such ballots simply rubber-stamp his authority.


However, the result of these elections - the first in Jordan since the Arab Spring - cannot necessarily be a cause of complaint by opposition parties. Their boycott, while based on valid grievances against a system they understandably did not want to legitimize, ensured such an outcome.


Turnout


The success, or otherwise, of the boycott call - by the Muslim Brotherhood and others, including the tribal al-Hirak movement, left-wing parties, and the National Reform Front of former Prime Minister Ahmed Obeidat - depends on how one interprets turnout figures. Officials said turnout was 56.5 percent, while independent local election monitors estimated it at 50-51 percent, without attributing the discrepancy to state manipulation.


There are those who would deem anything above 50 percent as a defeat of the boycotters, given that the Brotherhood is by far the largest party in the country. Some analysts were expecting turnout at less than 50 percent. Of the numerous and diverse Jordanians I interviewed in the week prior to the elections, all said they would not vote.


“What elections?” was the manner in which one of them summed it up. Another said he would not take part “to show my dismay with the system as a whole.” A magazine editor told me: “The government is corrupt, and will stay this way regardless of the elections. Most people here aren’t interested.” In public, a surgeon threw his hands in the air saying “no comment, really no comment,” before telling me privately that the politicians “are all thieves.”

More than two-thirds of Jordan’s population live in cities, but are allocated less than a third of parliamentary seats

Sharif Nashashibi


If the official figure is accurate - the Brotherhood says it is much lower, though it did not field observers - it represents a setback for the movement in comparison with the previous two elections. Turnout was 53 percent in the 2010 vote, which the Brotherhood also boycotted, and 54 percent in 2007, when it took part.


It should be noted, however, that of Jordan’s almost 7 million people, 3.1 - 3.6 million were eligible to vote, of whom only 2.2 - 2.3 million registered, and just 1.3 million voted. As such, most Jordanians eligible to vote did not do so.

This points to widespread apathy or cynicism. “The overall sentiment is bad, but it’s always been bad and now it’s going downhill,” a university student told me.


Free and fair?


For the first time in Jordan, observers (7,000 of them) monitored the elections, and an Independent Electoral Commission was set up to deal with complaints of fraud. There have certainly been such complaints, mainly related to vote-buying.


“Candidates’ agents surrounded many of the polling centers...corralling groups of young men to go vote,” wrote Christian Science Monitor correspondent Nicholas Seeley. “In one east Amman neighborhood, they were even allowed inside. Numerous voters showed their completed ballots to the candidates’ observers.”


Such allegations have even been reported in the country’s press, as has dissent over the ballot and reform process - a new phenomenon due to growing public unrest, a property developer told me.


Overall, however, monitors said the conduct of these elections was an improvement from previous votes, which were widely viewed as rigged. David Martin, chief observer of the European Union Election Observing Mission, described these elections as “fairly smooth.” There were some minor technical glitches at some polling stations, but no “signs of intimidation,” he added.


There was “no systematic fraud,” said Mohammed Hussainy, head of the Integrity Coalition for Election Observation, but “the chaos that happened in the last few hours (of polling) created the possibility for fraud.”


Monitors did, however, have fundamental misgivings about the voting process as a whole. The U.S.-financed National Democratic Institute, which sent 50 observers, noted “systemic distortions,” saying the elections remained “profoundly local contests where candidates are elected as service providers and representatives of parochial interests, rather than national legislators able to hold the executive branch to account or propose laws.”


The electoral structure “hasn’t really changed,” said Scott Mastic, director of Middle East programs at the International Republican Institute, which provided monitors for the past two parliamentary votes. “You continue to have a situation where vested and entrenched tribal figures and power brokers are at an advantage.”


Electoral law & under-representation


The fundamental reason for the opposition boycott is an electoral law that under-represents cities - which are opposition, particularly Islamist, strongholds - compared with sparsely populated, rural areas, where pro-regime loyalists dominate. More than two-thirds of Jordan’s population live in cities, but are allocated less than a third of parliamentary seats.

The conflict in Syria has also hit tourism in Jordan - a vital revenue source - as well as external trade, with many of its export routes cut when its neighbor closed its borders

Sharif Nashashibi


During these elections, turnout averaged 40 percent in the major cities - including the capital - but more than 70 percent in rural areas. A constitutional amendment has exacerbated this imbalance by allocating more seats to women from Bedouin districts, which tend to support the king. The opposition also alleges that the electoral law encourages people to vote along tribal lines, thereby preventing the emergence of strong, coherent political parties.


Furthermore, Jordanians of Palestinian origin - who make up the majority of the population, and tend to vote for opposition candidates - are “grossly underrepresented in parliament and the state,” in the words of Reuters correspondent Suleiman al-Khalidi. This is “always a highly sensitive issue in a country whose entire history has been shaped by the Arab-Israeli conflict,” wrote The Guardian’s Middle East editor Ian Black.


The economy


While demonstrations in Jordan began in January 2011, the most recent flare-up occurred in November last year, due to the slashing of subsidies on petrol and cooking gas as a condition for obtaining a $2 billion loan from the International Monetary Fund. The resulting price rises caused clashes with security forces that left three people dead.


Prices of other basic goods, such as food, have also risen, and Jordan will have to abandon more price controls, as well as cut public-sector jobs, to qualify for the loan. Furthermore, the protests have “made investors wary,” and public debt “will have risen substantially” by the end of 2012, says the Oxford Business Group. Inflation is also forecast to rise this year.


“The government has so far failed to justify any increase in prices with a valid, tangible plan,” a Jordanian businessman told me. “Why are we so in debt, what happened with previous aid, why have so many projects failed, and to whose benefit? Once we get the IMF loan, what are our exact plans and budgets, and how can we, the people, monitor that?”


The economy is struggling to cope with a growing influx of Syrian refugees (250,000 as of December 2012), as well as 450,000 Iraqis, while receiving nowhere near enough international aid to adequately care for them. The conflict in Syria has also hit tourism in Jordan - a vital revenue source - as well as external trade, with many of its export routes cut when its neighbor closed its borders.


Bridging the ‘East-West’ divide


The bleak economic outlook could well spark further unrest, and will affect Jordanians regardless of their political affiliations. This has served to bridge the traditional divide between the ‘East Bankers’ - Jordanians who inhabited the country before the arrival of Palestinian refugees from 1948 onwards - and Jordanians of Palestinian origin.


The former, who dominate the government and security forces, “have long formed the pillar of support for a regime that played on their fears concerning the Palestinian-origin majority,” but “that pillar is showing cracks,” and “East Bankers increasingly are fed up,” according to a report by the International Crisis Group.


“Their rural strongholds have suffered from the near collapse of the agricultural sector and sharply curtailed public spending that began in the 1990s,” the ICG wrote. “Their habitual source of strength - their ties to the state - has been severely damaged by the wave of privatizations that began in the mid-1990s as well as by sky-rocketing (and largely unpunished) high-level corruption.


“The net result of both dynamics has been to shift resources away from them and toward a new, narrow private sector elite with privileged access to the palace.” This “has undermined the regime and led to unprecedented attacks by its East Banker, rural and tribal constituency.”


East Bankers have formed al-Hirak (The Movement), which has allied itself with the broader opposition. “This more than any other has the potential to really cause problems for the king and the palace,” said David Schenker, director of the Arab politics program at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, who has met with Hirak. “It represents a fraying of that traditional loyalty.”


Reforms


The king has instituted constitutional reforms to placate public unrest, perhaps in the realization that simply firing prime ministers (as he has done three times in the last two years) and reshuffling cabinets were neither working nor convincing.


From now on, the king will consult parliament before choosing a government, and the prime minister will be picked from the largest electoral bloc or party - or someone approved by them - and be expected to command a parliamentary majority. However, the king will still have the final say in the selection process, and will still be able to sack him or her.


Furthermore, apart from the Brotherhood - which boycotted the elections - Jordanian political parties are relatively small and weak, so it is difficult to see how a prime minister and government will be chosen from a party or bloc that commands sufficient support within parliament.


Even if this hurdle is overcome - a big if - parliament is dominated by regime loyalists, so whoever is appointed will hardly be seen by the opposition as a viable consensus-builder with a truly representative cabinet. Moreover, these elections were for the lower house of parliament, the House of Representatives. The upper house - the Senate - is still appointed by the king.


Too little, too late?


This election is a “stepping stone” to “more vigorous, serious, real and genuine reforms. More democracy is coming,” said Prime Minister Abdullah Ensour, without elaborating. The king has said change will be gradual, and that it could take several years for Jordan’s political parties to form right-wing, left-wing and centrist coalitions before a prime minister can be popularly elected.


The problem is, people’s patience is fast running out. “The idea that the country isn’t ready for proper democracy isn’t just demeaning, it’s insulting,” a Jordanian in the education sector told me.


The king “has talked constantly about reform since coming to the throne almost 13 years ago...with very little to show for it,” wrote The Guardian’s former Middle East editor Brian Whitaker, whose successor Ian Black wrote: “Jordan’s political system is similar to those of Kuwait and Morocco, which both have parliaments and whose rulers also face Samuel Huntington’s classic ‘king’s dilemma’ of how far to promote a controlled opening of the system without surrendering power or becoming genuinely accountable.”


The monarch has reportedly expressed private frustrations that powerful, conservative politicians are holding back his reform agenda. There are certainly those profiting from his patronage who will oppose any changes that may jeopardize such benefits. However, many are skeptical, believing that the king holds ultimate power, and that this is an excuse used by Arab leaders to deflect criticism and delay reforms.


Protesters have focused their demands on reform rather than ending the monarchy, but this may not always be the case. “Too little has been done, but it’s not too late,” one Jordanian told me. However, another brought up the Arab Spring, warning: “We’re next.”

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Sharif Nashashibi, a regular contributor to Al Arabiya English, The Middle East magazine and the Guardian, is an award-winning journalist and frequent interviewee on Arab affairs. He is co-founder of Arab Media Watch, an independent, non-profit watchdog set up in 2000 to strive for objective coverage of Arab issues in the British media. With an MA in International Journalism from London's City University, Nashashibi has worked and trained at Dow Jones Newswires, Reuters, the U.N. Development Programme in Palestine, the Middle East Broadcasting Centre, the Middle East Economic Survey in Cyprus, and the Middle East Times, among others. In 2008, he received the International Media Council's "Breakaway Award," given to promising new journalists, "for both facilitating and producing consistently balanced reporting on the highly emotive and polarized arena that is the Middle East." He can be found on Twitter: @sharifnash

Disclaimer: Views expressed by writers in this section are their own and do not reflect Al Arabiya English's point-of-view.