“Supporters of democratic reform in Jordan are facing a sharp political dilemma, as they ponder whether to boycott parliamentary elections slated for later this year – or to participate in an electoral process that many regard as deeply flawed,” Tobias Buck reports from Amman:
King Abdullah has repeatedly promised that elections will be held this year but opposition activists and analysts claim that Jordan’s controversial new election law, which was approved by the king last month, offers the clearest sign yet that the country’s reform effort is heading in the wrong direction. It mandates that the bulk of seats in the new chamber will once again be determined by direct run-offs in electoral districts.
Critics say the system is unfair because it hugely favours thinly-populated rural areas over cities, leading to a legislature that is starkly out of tune with Jordan’s true demographics. They also warn that the electoral law encourages voters to back candidates with whom they have a tribal affiliation, and so prevents the emergence of strong and coherent political parties.
The Muslim Brotherhood, the Kingdom’s major opposition force, this week issued a statement describing “regime reform” as a “realistic and achievable objective.” and the only acceptable outcome of the country’s reform process.
But genuine reform means demands that political authority is derived from popular sovereignty via freely elected representative governments, said Hamzah Mansour (above), head of the Islamic Action Front (IAF), the Brotherhood’s political wing.
The group’s decision to boycott the forthcoming poll is “a heavy blow to Jordan’s reformist credentials….With the exception of the brotherhood, parties are traditionally weak in Jordan. The current parliament is dominated by tribal interests, which traditionally back the regime,” notes the FT’s Buck:
“The opposition, and especially the Islamists, were demanding an electoral law that was seen by the government as a bid to maximise their strength – and therefore changing the rules of the game,” says Musa Shteiwi, the director of Jordan’s Centre for Strategic Studies. “But the government does not want to change the rules of the game.”
“If the elections are boycotted and there is a low turn-out, people will simply say that political reforms in Jordan have failed,” says an Amman-based western diplomat. “There is a serious risk that the number of people who register to vote will fall below 50 per cent of the population – that would show there is no serious movement [towards domestic reforms].”
The weakness of Jordanian civil society is another obstacle to sustainable democratic reform, observers suggest.
“Civil society in Jordan has roots within the tribal system, which is deeply embedded in society and operates alongside the formally established legal system,” notes the International Center for Not-for-Profit Law (ICNL):
The tribes in Jordan play a political role, offer an alternative judicial system and provide services to communities. Indeed, the formal legal system, in defining societies, does not eliminate the tribal concept of “families.”….Many formal civil society organizations (CSOs) in Jordan initially focused on charitable and aid activities. Once Jordan acceded to international conventions, such as the International Convention on Civil and Political Rights, some CSOs emerged to raise public awareness in relation to human rights, including the rights of assembly and association. At the same time, however, fundamental rights and freedoms are still subject to governmental interference, due to the Government’s claims of fighting terrorism and protecting national security.
But Jordan’s government is further weakening civil society by violating the right to freedom of association by denying non-governmental groups’ permission to accept foreign funding, says Human Rights Watch:
The cabinet’s June 27, 2012 decision against Tamkeen, a Jordanian legal assistance group, is the first denial of foreign funding that has come to Human Rights Watch’s attention since the cabinet-level review provision became law in 2009. Tamkeen has carried out groundbreaking work in Jordan over the past four years, providing free legal advice to migrant workers, in particular Asian domestic workers and Egyptian agricultural workers.
“Jordan’s talk of greater transparency and reform can’t be taken seriously if the government cuts off funding to effective civil society groups,” said Christoph Wilcke, senior Middle East researcher at Human Rights Watch. “Jordan seems to be closely following other Middle Eastern countries in trying to silence voices for reform.”
The regime is missing an opportunity to engage civil society in support of democratic reform, according to Sameer Jarrah, a Jordanian lawyer and founder of the Arab World Center for Democratic Development and Human Rights.
“With a proper understanding of the role of civil society, and better government policies, Jordanian civic associations can help the Jordanian government overcome the obstacles to necessary reforms and can contribute to social and political stability and economic prosperity,” he wrote in a recent Brookings Institution analysis of Jordanian civil society:
Without such changes, the government will continue to find itself in confrontation with major social groups, whether they are organized into legal associations or not. Without an ability to organize peacefully and advocate for their needs and priorities, citizens will continually seek to circumvent government restrictions by manipulating the law and operating clandestinely. This is harmful not only to the prospects for true democratic reform, but to Jordan’s overall security and stability.
The National Democratic Institute supports a coalition of civil society organizations, led by the National Center for Human Rights (NCHR), that advocates electoral reform:
In February 2012, NDI officially launched its student political participation program, Ana Usharek, or “I Participate,” which consists of bimonthly discussion groups at eight universities to equip more than 1,340 Jordanian students with knowledge of the basic principles of human rights and democracy. Students have also had the opportunity to meet with decision-makers and parliamentarians to discuss the country’s reform drive.
The authorities in Amman should eliminate all legal impediments to the freedom of professional associations, argues Jarrah, a member of the international steering committees of the Network of Democrats in the Arab World (right) and the Council for the Community of Democracies:
The 2008 Associations Law … further entrenches the ability of the government, and especially the security services, to use state oversight as a means to subvert NGOs and prevent their ability independently to organize, mobilize, and express public demands to the state. The law also contradicts Jordan’s international human rights treaty obligations. Even if the law survives court challenges it still must be revised to liberate Jordanian civil society to play a constructive role in advancing reform in Jordan.
Unfortunately, the government appears to lack the strategic foresight and recent developments threaten “another failure and another setback,” says one senior Jordanian politician, who believes the regime’s priority is to curb the power of the Brotherhood. “The main concern of the government and the regime is the Islamists.”
Some observers believe that the latest setback for Jordan’s reformist camp reflects not least the lack of popular pressure for more radical change. Though Jordan has seen regular demonstrations calling for political reform since early last year, they typically attract only a few hundred protesters. The bloody conflict in neighbouring Syria has also played a role, convincing many Jordanians that political stability is – at least for the moment – more important than the struggle for greater democracy.
Popular support for democracy is on the upswing across the Arab world, but it has been notably cooler in Jordan than elsewhere in the region,” according to a recent Pew Center survey.
“Support has declined somewhat in Jordan,” said the Pew survey. “Enthusiasm for democracy tends to be generally less intense in Jordan and in Pakistan. It is consistently strong in Lebanon and Turkey.”
Some 84% of Lebanese, 71% of Turks, 67% of Egyptians, 63% of Tunisians and 61% of Jordanians believe “democracy is preferable” to authoritarian rule.