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Jordan's reluctant reformer

During 2011's Arab Spring, protests swept the Middle East. Dictators were ousted, civil wars erupted, and even countries where out and out regime change was not on the cards saw rumblings of discontent. No country was completely exempt. Jordan was one such relatively stable nation. Its monarchy has remained intact and protests were not on the same scale as neighbouring countries – but the country has still been home to simmering dissatisfaction with economic conditions and limits on democracy.

On Wednesday, the country went to the polls. Turn out topped 50 per cent. King Abdullah II framed the election as a significant step forward for Jordan's political reform. Previously, the king appointed the government, but this will be the first parliament to elect its own prime minister. However, a coalition of Islamist and left-wing parties did not see it that way, choosing to boycott the election altogether.

The main reason was the preservation of an electoral law, which according to the opposition, ensured that the king's loyalists would get most of the seats in the parliament. The Islamic Action Front, the political wing of the Muslim Brotherhood in Jordan, claims that the election boundaries are gerrymandered to favour the pro-royal countryside rather than the cities. Jordan's densely populated cities are the base of Islamist parties, and are home to the country's majority Palestinian population. State television said that most of the 150 seats contested were won by "independent" candidates. As in previous elections, these candidates tend to be socially conservative government loyalists who rely on family and tribal allegiances rather than party backing.

The Front organised street protests ahead of the poll, raising fears that turnout would be affected. While stopping short of calling for regime change, the group has argued more widely that the political reforms on offer do not go far enough. One of their objections is that King Abdullah will retain control of the key areas of foreign and security policy. Another is that he has insisted on retaining strong security ties with the US, and keeping the peace treaty with Israel signed by his father, King Hussein. The treaty is widely unpopular, given that Palestinians make up a large percentage of Jordan's population.
"This is a sham election whose results will only erode the credibility of the future parliament," said Zaki Bani Rusheid, deputy head of the Muslim Brotherhood, after the results were announced. The Front is the most significant party in the country by a long stretch. The fact that it boycotted the polls meant that the party lists were full of pro-regime independent candidates, which undermines the legitimacy of the parliament. This could be a serious problem. This parliament will have to push through IMF austerity measures, which will include a reduction of public sector jobs and a cut in power subsidies, which will hit the public hard and intensify economic discontent. The government's authority will be undermined if it is not seen as having democratic legitimacy. Meanwhile, opposition parties such as the Front have no reason to stop anti-government street protests, meaning increased likelihood of clashes with security forces and more pressure to speed up the pace of democratic reform.
None of these signs point to the greater stability that King Abdullah wants. He is keen to prevent an overspill of conflict from neighbouring Syria, which has been embroiled in a bloody civil war. There have been several incidents of violence along the Syrian-Jordanian border. Perhaps more worryingly, some analysts have warned that Jordanian Salafists going across the border to fight alongside the Syrian rebels may soon focus their attention closer to home. "For some Jordanian Salafis jihad in Syria is merely a preparation before returning home to take on their own regime which – orthodox Sunni though it is – is impious on other grounds," David Hirst warned in the Guardian in November.
Whichever way the Syrian conflict is resolved, it will be difficult for King Abdullah. If the rebels are victorious and an Islamist regime installed, it will strengthen the hand of both mainstream Islamic forces such as the Muslim Brotherhood, and of the jihadi element. If Assad manages to hang onto power, it will also strengthen the hand of Jordan's Islamists: King Abdullah has attempted to retain neutral in the Syrian conflict, which may be perceived as support for the regime.
The Islamic Action Front's boycott of the election successfully framed democratic reforms as cosmetic. Many have cast doubt on the parliament lasting out its full four year term. If the king really wants to shore up stability in Jordan, he would do well to work on the deteriorating relationship between the government and the people. Meaningful democratic reform, that transfers some authority from the throne to the parliament and the people, would be the natural place to start.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.

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