What comes next for Jordan after loyalists win rigged, boycotted elections

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The Jordan Times actually has a non-ironic headline for a story that reads: ‘Jordan biggest winner in elections — King.’jordan flag icon

I mistook it initially as reading that Jordan’s king was the biggest winner in the Jordanian elections, which would have probably been a more accurate headline, given that last week’s elections were certainly a ‘win’ in the nominal sense for Abdullah II, the Jordan monarch since 1999 (pictured above, right, with Saudi Arabian king Abdullah).

Those elections, held last Wednesday, January 23, were all but certain to elect to the Majlis al-Nuwaab (Chamber of Deputies), the lower house of Jordan’s Majlis al-Umma (National Assembly) a majority of legislators loyal to the monarchy — the 60 senators of the upper house, the Majlis al-Aayan (Assembly of Senators) are appointed by Jordan’s king.

Following the 2011 ‘Arab Spring’ protests in Jordan, Abdullah agreed to allow the Chamber of Deputies to select the next cabinet and prime minister.  Those deputies, however, include 108 out of 150 who were elected as ‘independents,’ mostly loyal to the monarchy, with just 15 seats reserved exclusively for women and just 27 reserved to be contested by political parties.

In light of the fact that 72% of the seats in the Chamber of Deputies are essentially rigged in favor of the monarchy, it’s understandable that the political wing of Jordan’s Muslim Brotherhood, the Islamic Action Front (جبهة العمل الإسلامي), boycotted the elections, alongside several other smaller parties, including many representatives of Hirak, the secular protest movement founded two years ago to protest the Jordanian monarchy.  The Muslim Brotherhood in Jordan has a longtime history of greater cooperation with the ruling state, and it itself is less conservative than other similar movements in the Middle East — it’s relatively progressive on women’s rights and is committed to democracy, for example.

Given the fact that the Brotherhood’s voters are typically more urban and more Palestinian, the elections will have resulted in disproportionately greater representation for the rural tribal population and the so-called East Bank Jordanians, who were never resident in the Palestinian-dominated West Bank of the Jordan River, annexed by Israel after the Six-Day War in 1967.

But the result is a bit more complicated than that.

International observers, such as the National Democratic Institute, have reported that the elections, by and large, were the freest elections yet experienced in Jordan, where 56% of eligible voters ignored the call to boycott and turned out to vote.  Given the turmoil currently engulfing Egypt under Muslim Brotherhood-supported president Mohammed Morsi, it’s not surprising that many Jordanians would be wary about turning over power to the Brotherhood in their own country.

Despite the Brotherhood boycott, however, 18 even more moderate Islamist candidates won seats, and another 20 or so leftist, nationalist or other government critics also won seats, a contrast to the prior Chamber of Deputies.

But if the vote wasn’t entirely lacking in irregularities, it’s hard to argue that the elections were exactly fair, given that the largest opposition party will have no representation.

So it’s also not surprising that many Jordanians are now protesting (some reports describe rioting) in the aftermath of the elections:

Jordan is witnessing its third day of riots protesting against the outcomes of the parliamentary elections, which showed a victory for tribal forces. These riots have deepened the political crisis that the country has been going through since January 2011. Scenes of violence killed one and injured three in the eastern tribal city of Mafraq, and eclipsed governmental and Western reports, which confirmed the integrity of the voting process. This comes at a time when Jordanian King Abdullah II is considering his options regarding the formation of a new government.

At the same time, the Muslim Brotherhood cancelled its own planned protests, so it’s too soon to know if the post-election protests will reach the critical mass that would more imminently pressure the Hashemite monarchy to accelerate its reform efforts.

Caretaker prime minister Abdullah Ensour, who was appointed in October 2012 to oversee economic reforms, has stepped down, but will stay on pending the appointment of a new prime minister directly by the National Assembly.  Jordanians most recently gathered for large-scale protests in November 2012 over cuts in fuel subsidies, one of several steps that Abdullah’s government has taken in light of a budget deficit that reached 6.5% of Jordanian GDP in 2012.

So what comes next?

Al-Hayat has also reported that Abdullah may well appoint a more reform-minded prime minister in order to place governmental power more firmly in the hands of the Jordanian parliament:

At the same time, Al-Hayat has learned that the Jordanian king has begun to consider options regarding the formation of a new government, after he announced in Davos, Switzerland, that in the near future Jordan “will see a new phase,” which consists of assigning the management of the country’s affairs to parliamentary governments…. The King is looking at several scenarios regarding a new PM, who most importantly needs to be a consensual official who greatly contributes in ending the tension in the kingdom. Moreover, some close associates to decision-making circles have not ruled out the possibility that [former foreign minister] Abdul Ilah Khatib, head of the IEC, will be added to the list of candidates for the post.

Khatib, most recently a special envoy to Libya, is well-respected, but his appointment would not necessarily stop what appears to be a cascading wave of protest, not only among the urban, poorer Palestinians, but throughout Jordan.

Given that the main opposition in Jordan, the Muslim Brotherhood, considered the elections so fraudulent as to be unworthy of participation, it seems unlikely that protestors will now be satisfied with a prime minister who brings Jordan one step closer toward truly parliamentarian government in the context of free and fair democratic elections.

If protests continue and metastasize, it’s not inconceivable that Abdullah and any new government would be forced to accede to new, fairer and freer elections in the coming months, though the high turnout, the relatively subdued nature of the protests (for now, at least) and the fact that nearly 25% of the deputies’ seats will go to moderate Islamists and government critics could well give Abdullah the breathing room he needs to embrace further stages of reform.

Jordan’s government, a top U.S. ally in the Middle East, has been much less repressive than other Arab governments, including since the Arab Spring protests began, first in 2011, and again in late 2012.

With a population of 6.5 million people that’s 92% Sunni Muslim and just 6% Christian, Jordan is more homogenous than Syria to its north, which is currently in the middle of the second year of a brutal civil war.  That means there is a much smaller chance that political protests could spiral into sectarian violence of the kind that has devastated Syria and brought Lebanon into civil war thirty years ago, or even the kinds of sectarian tensions that have led the Bahrain government to a more authoritarian crackdown against protests in the past two years.

Nonetheless, the socioeconomic tensions between the urban West Bank Palestinian migrants and their descendants, who originally came to Jordan following the Six-Day War, and the tribal, rural East Bank Jordanians aren’t insignificant.

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