King Abdullah II’s assertion that last week’s election signaled Jordan’s transition to democracy appear “hyperbolic” in face of the facts, says a leading analyst.
The National Democratic Institute, the Washington-based democracy assistance group, which observed the poll “was forceful in its verdict that the system is deeply flawed,” writes The Economist’s Nicolas Pelham.
“The unequal size of districts and an electoral system that amplifies family, tribal and national cleavages limit the development of a truly national legislative body,” NDI said, “and challenge King Abdullah’s stated aim of encouraging ‘full parliamentary government.’”
“True or not, the plethora of allegations point to a regime that is struggling to retain popular support,” Pelham writes for the New York Review of Books:
The widespread cynicism stems from the king’s half-hearted response to the Arab Awakening. A much-hyped reform constitution that was promoted as Abdullah’s answer to the popular revolts against autocracy that have swept the region has instead maintained the king’s powers to appoint the upper house, hire and fire the prime minister (albeit in consultation with parliament), and dissolve parliament; while a new electoral law that was supposed to make this week’s election more democratic has left the kingdom’s carefully choreographed political system largely unchanged.
The poll was boycotted by five opposition parties, including the Islamic Action Front, the political wing of Jordan’s powerful Muslim Brotherhood (above), in a move some analysts consider a strategic blunder.
“By calling for a boycott without being able to make it the main story of the elections, the Islamists overreached and failed,” said Daoud Kuttab (right), the director general of the Community Media Network NGO that runs the ammannet.net news web site, a grantee of the National Endowment for Democracy.
Nevertheless, “having won the current round with the Islamists should not give the other political actors an exaggerated sense of power and strength.”
The monarchy has gerrymandered rural constituencies to the benefit of the indigenous Bedouin, or East Bankers, who, Pelham notes, “though they constitute a minority of the country’s six million citizens, have long dominated the security forces and served as a backbone of the regime:”
Ironically, when the Arab uprisings began in 2011, the protest movement first gained strength among the Bedouin themselves—in the form of grassroots activism among hirak (or groups) from rural areas suffering from grinding poverty, the growing shortage of jobs in the public sector, which they had hitherto treated as a Bedouin right, and the desire for the king to cede some of his powers to a parliament they elected and controlled.
The region’s monarchies have fared better than their republican counterparts in withstanding democratic demands, says analyst Mokhtar Benabdallaoui, in large part through a blend of institutional flexibility and political dexterity that enables monarchs to enjoy power without responsibility while deflecting pressure onto intermediate institutions that have responsibility without power.
Yet the failure to adopt meaningful reforms could make Jordan the first Arab monarchy to fall, says David Schenker, the director of the Program on Arab Politics at The Washington Institute for Near East Policy.
The Hashemite regime is a beneficiary of the region’s geo-political rivalries.
“Gulf countries, whose financial support had slowed, rushed to resume funding after Iran offered Jordan free oil for thirty years in November,” notes Pelham:
Saudi Arabia, the UAE, and Kuwait have each pledged $250 million; and the IMF, Qatar, and the US—which since the fall of Mubarak considers Jordan its closest Arab ally—have committed to larger contributions of their own. In addition, Iraq plans to build a pipeline running from Basra to Aqaba, which would allow Jordan to collect copious transit fees. By the end of the year, King Abdullah could be celebrating an injection of funds worth $2 billion, almost eliminating his budget deficit.
The regime is also retaining the allegiance of those who “look at the Brotherhood’s recourse to violence in Syria and power grab in Egypt and wonder whether Islamists in Jordan would be any more democratic or tolerant than their current leader,” Pelham suggests.
“We’re no longer sure that the replacement of the regime is better for political reform,” says Oraib Rantawi, who heads an Amman-based think-tank that has advised Abdullah.
With the election over, the regime faces a challenging test, says Pelham:
If the king resorts to harsher measures rather than pursuing a compromise to keep his opposition on board, some observers think the monarchy itself could face a growing challenge. Should push come to shove, says Bassam Badareen, Al-Quds Al-Arabi’s veteran correspondent in Amman, “The Brotherhood has more stamina than the king.”