Little Change Likely in Jordan's First Election Since Arab Spring

The parliamentary election has lost much of its legitimacy due to party boycotts and still doesn't address the complaints of Jordan's populace.

A photo of Dr. Zvi Bar'el.
Zvi Bar'el
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A photo of Dr. Zvi Bar'el.
Zvi Bar'el

The Jordanian election to take place on Wednesday will be less exciting and less fateful than Egypt or Israel's recent elections. Some 2.5 million registered voters will select 150 members of parliament - a legislative body that still can't freely pass legislation and can be dispersed by royal decree. Moreover, this election - the first in Jordan since the Arab Spring - shows little sign of changing the lives of Jordan's population.

At first glance, the participation of 1,500 candidates (including 191 women) in the election seems to attest to the interest it has generated. However, most of the candidates are tribal or clan representatives and regime insiders, who will ensure a parliament loyal to the king.

In contrast, the religious movements - including the Muslim Brotherhood - and some left-wing factions decided to boycott the vote because of the election law. They claim the law prevented them from having a fair chance of getting elected. By law, only 27 candidates can be elected from nationwide electoral lists, while the rest are independent candidates.

The previous electoral method allowed voters to submit two ballots: one for an electoral list and another for a single candidate. Thus, the Islamic electoral lists could receive many seats. With the current method, most voters will prefer to support a family or tribe member instead of giving their votes to an electoral list.

More important than the ballot is the public's post-election response. In recent months, several popular disturbances took place in Jordan. The protesters demanded not only a significant improvement of the economic situation, but also changes in the kingdom's constitutional character. Some even made calls to depose the king.

King Abdullah II isn't in any rush to give up his kingdom. Yet Abdullah also recognizes the difficulty with which he managed to salvage his rule from the wave of rebellion that passed through other Arab countries. He knows he must make some concessions if he wants to stay on the throne.

"The Jordan my son will inherit won't be the same Jordan that I inherited," Abdullah said recently in a media interview. Observers in Jordan were quick to interpret the king's remarks as signifying Abdullah's intentions to concede some of his royal powers.

Local sources quoted in the Jordanian press believe Abdullah is considering granting parliament greater powers to supervise the government and a freer hand to legislate. Yet if the parliament is comprised of the king's loyalists anyway, it's not clear that broadening the legislative body's powers will give the country either a liberal or religious opposition.

Jordan's parliamentary elections, whose legitimacy has already been eroded by the opposition groups' boycott, cannot obscure Jordan's fundamental problem. Jordan's high level of unemployment is a clear indicator of the country's underlying economic weakness. At the same time, the country's national debt is $22 billion. Add to this equation annual government subsidies to the tune of $2.5 billion and the country's relative paucity of natural resources, which requires the kingdom to import oil and natural gas.

All together, these economic factors leave the country financially dependent on the largesse provided by other Arab nations, like Egypt and Saudi Arabia, neither of which share the same political agenda as Jordan.

At the same time, there are now more than 450,000 Iraqi refugees and 250,000 Syrian refugees living in the country (alongside Jordan's Palestinian refugees and the East Bank's original Palestinian population). While a large portion of these Syrian and Iraqi refugees don't rely on government aid, their presence is undermining the country's social fabric. Jordan is a needy kingdom that, from the start, posed an ever-present challenge for its king. This challenge continues to grow while Jordan's neighbors, Syria and Iraq, are becoming increasingly unstable.

Last-minute campaigning for the Jordanian parliamentary election. The slogan reads "Nothing can replace Palestine except paradise."Credit: AP
King Abdullah II (right) with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas in December 2012.Credit: AP
Muslim Brotherhood protests against the Jordanian parliamentary election, which it claims is unfair.Credit: AP

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