Mohammad Yaghi

Mohammad Yaghi

Constitutions, Elections, Featured, Islamist Politics, Jordan, Parliaments, Political Parties, Political Reform

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In an effort to encourage Jordanians to participate in the upcoming parliamentary elections on January 23rd, King Abdullah II promised to put the Kingdom on the road to parliamentary governance by outlining how prime ministers and cabinets are selected in a public discussion paper. Despite such efforts, last Friday the opposition organized a demonstration in Amman to express its dismissal of the electoral law and the government’s slow steps to reform, promising to escalate the protests despite the elections. If elections will not likely put an end to the protests, then why has the government insisted on them?

It would appear that the Jordanian government believes that decent and internationally monitored elections, particularly with a high voter turnout, will reflect its popularity and legitimacy, deprive the opposition from questioning the authority of the new parliament, and delegitimize the opposition’s demands for genuine constitutional reforms that touch on the King’s authorities. Increasing the government’s legitimacy would also encourage its allies to support the Kingdom financially. The government’s highest priority has thus become increasing election participation.

Toward this end, the regime has deployed its available resources to increase the election turnout. A brief analysis of the candidates in the districts and lists (699 candidates in 45 districts competing for 123 seats of which 15 seats are reserved for women, and 61 closed national lists comprised of 829 candidates competing for 27 seats) reveals the regime’s strategy of mobilizing its old allies, co-opting part of the new emerging opposition, and playing on the divisive politics between Fatah and Hamas among the Jordanians of Palestinian origin. The traditional allies of the regime include the former ministers, deputies, as well as the tribal candidates. Many of regime’s allies who have no chance of securing seats in their districts formed their own lists, which explains the high number of list candidates relative to the few number of seats available to them. This, however, serves the regime’s endeavour of increasing the turnout.

In attempt to weaken the opposition, the government convinced certain elements of the new opposition to run in the elections. For example, a small group of the social left and the military veterans committee, who played an important role in initiating the protests in Jordan in January 2011, are running in two separates lists. A common factor between the two groups is that their platforms both call for constitutionalizing Jordan’s 1988 decision of disengagement with the West Bank and ending the policy of naturalizing the Palestinians living in Jordan. Finally, the regime managed to persuade some of its critics in the media to take part in the election such as Dr. Rola al-Hroob, who leads the Nashama list (the bravery list). In short, despite the opposition’s call to boycott the elections, the government’s strategy may successfully increase voter turnout.

However, the enormous effort to show that the opposition does not represent the Jordanians’ majority is a short-sighted strategy. First, the opposition has already contended the voter registration process. The presence of the international monitors may weaken the opposition’s claims about the integrity of the electoral process, but it will not end them. More importantly, while the participation of party lists from the social left and the veterans committee may increase voter turnout, they will likely not manage to secure many, if any, seats. Therefore, the likelihood that supporters will return to the streets for protests following elections is high. Furthermore, playing Fatah’s card in Jordan is a double-edged sword. While it increases the turnout, it also augments identity tensions among Jordanians, a more dangerous and deeper problem than the elections.

The current policy does not address the true sources of Jordanian discontent and protests. Activists from the emerging opposition, the Islamists, and the leftists are looking for true political and economic reforms. They want an elected Parliament to be a true legislative authority in order to hold the government accountable. This requires more radical constitutional reforms, such as abolishing the constitutional articles 34, 35, and 36, which allow the King to appoint the government, dissolve the Parliament, and appoint the deputies of the Upper House, respectively. It also requires an inclusive electoral law, both in terms of the number of seats allocated to the districts, and in terms of the proportion of seats reserved for national lists in order to facilitate the process of new political parties. Jordanians want to see a true fight against corruption. Not only do they want embezzlers of public money to be jailed (few of them have been brought to court), but they are also looking for a coherent policy that uproots corruption and returns the embezzled money. In a country whose national debt has reached $24 billion, and where the cost of goods has increased by about 15%, it is difficult to convince Jordanians that economic difficulties are due to external reasons if fighting corruption is not taken seriously.

The King seems genuine in his promise to turn Jordan into a true constitutional monarchy over time. However, the slow pace of reform does not correlate with the dramatic changes in the region that are reinforcing the opposition’s demands. As such, the upcoming parliamentary elections might legitimize the regime’s claims that the majority of Jordanians are still loyal to the Hashemite family, but they are unlikely to diffuse the Jordanian protests.

Mohammad Yaghi is a PhD candidate at the University of Guelph in Canada. He focuses on the structure of mobilization and democratization in the Middle East and North Africa, and recently conducted field research on Jordan’s electoral law and political opposition. In 2009, he was a Lafer international fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.