Jordanian Elections: Political Islam to Revive Kingdom’s Democratization?

Jordanian Parliamentary elections, held on 20 September 2016, called to polls 4.1 million Jordanians to nominate the members of the Majlis al-Nuwaab, House of Representatives, following the monarchical decision of parliament’s dismissal last May.

Elections: real commitment to democratic reforms?

Elections represent a modest step in a process of defensive democratization that the Hashemite Monarchy, staunch ally of US, has undergone in the attempt to insulate the Kingdom from the conflicts at its borders. Alongside economic stagnation and skyrocketing unemployment rates, political grievances emerged as claims of unrest during the 2011-12 protests, as part of the broader popular uprising that has shaken the MENA region. King Abdullah II moved to assuage the populace, promising reform and firing governments in quick succession, meaning five in the last two years. Among the different interventions to promote an evolutionary transformation that would avoid jumping in the abyss, the monarch has given impulse to a revision of the controversial electoral law.

Historically, Jordanian elections have been largely contested. For over a decade, the regime, concentrated in perpetrating its political longevity, has supported an electoral system of gerrymandering that favours sparsely populated tribal East Bank constituencies over the densely populated cities. Therefore, it has institutionally empowered loyal tribal leaders, core of monarchical support and very first loyal force of an artificially-born country, and undermined the participation of Jordanians of Palestinian origins, supporters of Islamist movements and highly politicized. The electoral system has mirrored not only the issue of patronage that deeply influences the Jordanian policy-making but, to a wider extent, the monarchical strategy to secure and maintain the power structures that grants its legitimacy.

After the approval of a new electoral normative in 2015, September’s elections were the first since 1989 to be held under a form of proportional representation. Designed to encourage political parties, the new electoral law does not address the problematic of malapportionment and the gerrymandering issue. However, it has been praised by the international community and Jordanian reformers alike as a significant step towards a more effective and issue-focused House, dominated by coalitions’ blocs, since it allows multiple votes for open proportional lists, reintroducing block voting for all seats and putting aside the contested “one man-one vote” system.

There is reason to believe that the expected politicization of the parliament represents an improbable scenario due to the very own the numeral of the electoral candidates. Having 230 lists of nearly 1,300 candidates competing for 130 seats, it ensures per se a parliament composed with dozens of different parties. Therefore, it results in a legislature composed of a wide array of politicians with individual agendas, missing common ground for a unified political program.

Islamists pushed to margins

The main oppositional force of a regime based on four pillars (the monarchy, the army and mukhabarat, wealthy business men and tribal elites), is represented by the Muslim Brotherhood and its political branch, the Islamic Action Front (IAF). This form of political Islam has been able to disrupt for years, representing the only meaningful opposition to the draconian legislations approved by the parliament.

However, as today, the Islamist landscape appears increasingly polarized. The Jordanian branch of the Al-Banna’s movement has taken two different paths due to long-lasting ideological disputes between the “doves”, moderate and nationalist tribal East Bankers, loyal to the monarchy; and the “hawks”, Jordanians of Palestinian origins with a more critical perspective on government policies and supportive of the regional Brotherhoods as a regional movement with a common denominator of action. These divisions have been exacerbated on April, when the authorities demanded a new license to the organization, issuing a document for Thnaibat’s faction, historic leader of the “dove” faction, to establish a new party, the Muslim Brotherhood Society (MBS), while promptly expelled defectors.

The old guard of the Brotherhood has not been dismantled, it has survived and has emerged as leading force of kingdom’s Islamists, thanks to an efficient social outreach and welfare system that perpetrates its already rooted support. However, as today, its legal status appears unclear. Despite its large success within the masses, the lack of official permission of association exposes it to legal vulnerability, giving reason to believe that the Jordanian authorities will eventually tight their grip on the movement, as the recent arrests of over twenty activists and n. 2 group leader’s sentence to prison exemplify.

It is clear that the government has recurred to a strategy of divide et impera to weaken the only organised political force of the country, as much as to stop them from boycotting elections, and thus harming polls’ legitimacy. Additionally, the measures against the Brotherhood align with the regional-wide blow of the movement, which has been outlawed as terrorist organization in the last five years by Jordan’s close allies and rentier states as Egypt, Saudi Arabia and United Arab Emirates.

The Islamist phoenix rising from ashes: towards a new parliamentary scenario

The IAF, after internal vote on whether to compete or not, decided to participate in the electoral run, reaching out with other oppositional parties in order to constitute a coalition. Following the examples of the Tunisian Ennahda and the Moroccan JDP, the IAF created the National Coalition for Reform (NCR), an alliance that brought together its candidates, with tribal, nationalist, Christians and Circassians figures. The NCR’s program and rallies departed from traditional Brotherhood slogan “Islam is the solution”, aiming at the built of a civic and nonreligious approach to the country’s economic and social challenges. According to the results of the polls, the coalition won 15 seats of the 130-seat Majlis, 10 of them assigned to IAF candidates. Despite the result might seem modest, the NCR represents the biggest opposition bloc in the current parliamentary mandate.

On the other hand, the newly registered Muslim Brotherhood Society failed to win a single seat, dismal performance that focuses attention on Islamist pro-monarchy and their visibility in the Jordanian political arena. Similarly, the Zamzam Initiative, a recently founded group with a moderate and pro-government focus, its political wing the National Congress Party (NCP), and the Wassat Party obtained three seats each, raising the question on whether or not their deputies will ally in a bloc with the NCR.

The electoral process, held under the supervision of the Independent Electoral Commission and a diverse number of regional and international organizations, registered a general apathy of Jordanian citizens, due to a rather lower voter turnout of 37% in comparison to the 50% registered in January 2013 elections. The authorities blamed a comma of the new legislation, which does not grant to the approximately one million Jordanian expatriates the ability to vote, as much as to the difficulties dictated by the regional circumstances.

Until now, the government can declare the success of Jordanian democracy but, at the eyes of its citizens, little has changed in a system that limits political participation and perpetrates a legislation mostly dominated by governmental loyalist. This explains and confirms the opinions of independent observers who anticipated apathy of many voters, who have minimal confidence in governmental institutions, expressed disaffection to a process of democratization mainly dictated by cosmetic reforms.

Jordan has no ruling party and its government, appointed by the king, has encountered little opposition within a parliament dominated by pro-monarchical tribal leaders. However, there is optimism that the NCR may stimulate vivid debate in a generally passive assembly, so as to propose demands for a more representative institution, giving impulse to a long-term change on both political and social terms.

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