Jordan’s year-long vote for regime or revolt

Jordan’s elections do not signal a shift towards a more open political system. They may provide a platform for opposition groups or usher in a weak government.

Jordan’s upcoming parliamentary elections cannot avoid marking the increasing disconnect between palace politics and public discontent. Having weathered two years of increased political unrest and protracted economic crisis, Abdullah continues to project confidence with new elections touted as his hallmark reform. Yet, instead of ushering in a period of openness, the elections will perpetuate the status quo: a closed political space dominated by an absolute monarch.

In the short term and long term, this environment magnifies the kingdom’s vulnerabilities and poses an increasingly untenable situation. As tensions heighten and the economy sinks, the elections may tilt the vote towards popular revolt rather than regime reform.

Jordan’s reform process spans more than a decade. Led by King Abdullah, it has yielded no substantive change and sharpened criticisms of the monarch. Abdullah’s centerpiece reform is the controversial election law that introduces a mixed electoral system. The January 23 elections are the first elections based on this new electoral framework. Opposition groups argue that rather than creating a more inclusive system, the new law is regressive and favours the entrenched elite. Citing an unfair contest, several opposition groups pledge to boycott and demonstrate during election week.

Meanwhile, much of the public seems disengaged. NDI’s recent pre-election assessment notes the general indifference about the upcoming elections from citizens across the political spectrum in Jordan. Now with limited faith in reform rhetoric and unbounded frustrations across society, the country’s first elections since the Arab uprisings, will likely prove to be more eventful in the streets than the ballot box. Abdullah’s decision to forge ahead with elections with waning public confidence and a contentious voting system creates a precarious situation for both election-day matters and post-electoral politics.

In the short term, the elections elicit an opportunity for volatile protests. Robust demonstrations - with a wide base - will naturally accompany the elections. What may be pivotal is how the state and its security forces react towards demonstrators. Jordan’s increasing trend of massive arrests at demonstrations signals its harder line towards dissenters.  Human Rights Watch estimates that more than 300 people have been arrested in recent protests. These detainees range from Palestinian-Jordanians to East Bankers including activists from Tafileh, the southern governorate considered a loyal bedrock for the monarch. Last year’s addition of East Banker elements to reform chants signal the growing frustration from a wider segment of the population. Indeed, protests in southern areas hold the most potential to trigger larger turmoil. In addition, the King’s releases of detainees no longer appease opposition groups or tribal families. Any “iron fist” responses – quoting Hussein Majali, Jordan's police chief – may extinguish the patience of the disgruntled public or provoke a larger show of dissent by the emboldened opposition.

In the longer term, the newly elected government may have to contend with issues of legitimacy stemming from the electoral system. In addition, the new government must aid in implementing an ambitious plan of austerity measures. Either issue promises to incite more unrest or potentially tip the country into a full popular uprising. In 2013, Jordan’s IMF agreement outlines an austerity programme that includes electricity tariffs and deep cuts to fuel subsidies. Even the government’s direct cash assistance for the poorest may be removed depending on crude oil market rates. This impending burden on Jordanians’ livelihoods may present a precipice for Abdullah’s reform efforts. Evidenced by historic protests, fuel price hikes and cuts to the public sector help widen the base of political dissent and sharpen demands for political change.

More broadly, the economic outlook of Jordan’s aid-dependent budget remains sobering. Current ministers bet the economy’s recovery on substantial Gulf aid - that has yet to materialize - and assume no further spending on Syrian refugees. This planning also precludes any added severe shocks from disruptions to the Egyptian pipeline – Jordan’s main energy source – that would expand current budget shortfalls. Furthermore, Abdullah’s reversal of prices is not an option and another dismissal of government appears unlikely as it would display political weakness and communicate a contradicting message to the election reform, he has long invoked as a showpiece.

Jordan’s elections do not signal a shift towards a more open political system. But in reality, they may provide a platform for a rallying cry for opposition groups or usher in a weak government that aggravates economic unrest. While Abdullah heralded elections as the key turning point for reform, the ‘new’ electoral framework suggests business as usual. The newly elected government will probably lack legitimacy and continue the dangerous monotony that characterizes the country’s palace politics. This year’s menu of austerity measures may be the final straw for the new government or the monarchy itself as the Hashemite Kingdom struggles to prevent a slide into a Spring.

About the author

Que Newbill is a Middle East research analyst at the Stimson Center. He has lived in Jordan and worked at the Center for Strategic Studies based in Amman. Find him on Twitter @DuboisThinker