Jordan is in election mode. Placards featuring pictures of candidates litter the main streets and thoroughfares of the capital, Amman, and other Jordanian cities and towns. More than 1,000 candidates are running for the 150-seat lower house in what was dubbed by the pro-government press as a new beginning for Jordanian democracy. The January 23 election comes after two years of public protests calling for regime reform. During this Jordanian version of the Arab Spring, the opposition, led by a coalition of Islamist, nationalist and liberal parties and movements, held largely peaceful demonstrations, demanding political reforms ranging from constitutional amendments that limit the King’s powers, to a new election law that addresses political and demographic realities and revokes the single-vote system.
However, the coming elections will take place amid renewed boycott by the Kingdom’s largest political party, the Muslim Brotherhood’s Islamic Action Front (IAF), and others. What promised to be a breakthrough in terms of political reforms — that would reflect positively on the make-up of the next lower house — is looking more like a failed plan that, at best, will produce an improved copy of the notorious 16th parliament, which was dismissed by King Abdullah late last year.
Analysts predict that the 17th parliament will return many of the old faces that depend largely on the backing of their tribes, or in some cases, on votes paid for through political money. About 600 candidates will be competing for the 27 seats designated for national lists, a system that was introduced to encourage political parties to participate.
However, flaws in this system have already appeared. Instead of luring political parties, most of the lists comprised unknown figures that formed ad hoc coalitions under vague programmes. The end result will be a lower house of mostly independent representatives with narrow political interests. It will hardly be able to perform the legislative and supervisory role that Jordanians are hoping for.
The elections will take place at a crucial time for majority of Jordanians. The country has been trying to cope with mounting economic difficulties for the last three years. When the government lifted subsidies on oil products last November, violent demonstrations broke out and anti-regime slogans were heard for the first time. The so-called youth movement, representing disenfranchised young Jordanians from marginalised districts and governorates, has been the most vociferous in calling for the regime’s downfall. Most of those arrested during the protests belonged to the youth movement. Today, they represent the most dangerous element in public protests. They accuse the regime of corruption and of monopolising power. Their extremist views have created a distance between them and the more politicised opposition which has restricted its demands to political reforms.
The regime has created much hype over the coming elections. The King has said that reforms should be adopted by parliament and not on the street. Still, he has initiated dialogue with some representatives of the youth movement. He has promised to fight corruption and bring those accused of plundering the country’s resources to justice. The credibility of the regime will now be tested. But a weak lower house will become an added burden, especially if Jordanians resume their weekly protests. The government is expected to adopt new austerity measures soon, which will reignite such protests.
There are those who believe that fixing the economic situation will undermine public protests in the long run. They believe that the King has made substantial moves towards more power sharing. He has spoken of parliamentary governments being formed in the future where more consultations will be made before choosing the next prime minister.
Many Jordanians are indifferent about the next elections. Of the two million registered voters, observers believe only half will actually vote. This will represent a setback to the Palace which wants the elections and the coming parliament to represent the beginning of what the King called a Jordanian summer — an end to public protests.
But critics of the regime say that the King has not heard the call of his citizens. Two years ago, he had formed a national dialogue committee to propose a new election law and suggest other reforms. The recommendations were shelved. Others believe the King is looking ahead and taking regional developments, especially in Syria and the occupied territories, into account. Recent events in Egypt, where the Islamist president clashed with secular parties over his powers and the new constitution, have played to the regime’s side and raised fears among tribal and liberal forces alike of the growing Islamist influence and the Muslim Brotherhood’s agenda in Jordan.
The elections will not deliver the parliament that Jordanians were promised. Economic difficulties will continue to challenge governments as they try to enforce additional unpopular measures. Regional developments will continue to cast their shadow on local politics. The post-election era will bring additional confrontations and raise the threshold of public demands. Jordan’s version of the Arab Spring is hardly over.
Osama Al Sharif is a journalist and political commentator based in Amman.