By Julien Barnes-Dacey, Special to CNN
Editor’s note: Julien Barnes-Dacey is a senior policy fellow with the European Council on Foreign Relations. The views expressed are his own.
Last week's parliamentary elections in Jordan have been widely hailed as a success. Domestic and international observers have praised the integrity of the vote and the turnout figure of 56.5 percent has been taken, by some, as a popular endorsement of King Abdullah’s reform track. The Royal Palace is likely enjoying a moment of renewed confidence following a difficult year, particularly as fears about the spread of instability from Syria are also dampening opposition activism. Speaking at the World Economic Forum in Davos, the King hailed a “wonderful election outcome.”
Yet while the general integrity of the electoral process was a positive improvement on past elections, in and of itself, the vote may not actually mean that much. Following two years of low level – but nationwide – protests provoked by a lack of substantial political reform or the tackling of state corruption, the country remains in a precarious position. Much will now depend on the King’s willingness to push through bolder measures aimed at cementing a more inclusive order if further unrest is to be avoided.
Given the systemic restrictions on political parties, continued gerrymandering in favor of tribal districts, and the weak executive powers granted to parliament, the two biggest opposition groups – the Muslim Brotherhood’s Islamic Action Front (IAF) and the East Bank Herak movement – largely boycotted last week’s vote, dealing a significant blow to its legitimacy. Additionally the true turnout figure was closer to 40 percent, with the 56.5 percent figure taken from the number of voters who pre-registered to cast a ballot and not the total number of eligible voters. As such, it is hard to talk about the new parliament – largely made up of pro-palace tribal loyalists and a scattering of weak political parties – as truly representative or empowered to push through much-needed, and potentially painful, political and economic reform. On the back of the vote, few Jordanians expressed real enthusiasm. “They are all thieves who will forget about us as soon as they gain power,” was one opinion shared last week, reflecting widespread popular frustration.
Amidst a wide sense of political malaise that has steadily intensified over the past two years, Jordan now faces two very immediate challenges that risk rocking the boat even further. First, the country’s economy remains in dire straits and the new government will be expected – indeed obliged by the conditions of the recent $2 billion IMF loan – to impose further austerity measures on the country, notably raising electricity prices and cutting the country’s bloated public sector. Nationwide riots erupted last November when energy subsidies were lifted and there are widespread fears that further cuts by a government without broad-based popular legitimacy – particularly among some of the economically deprived East Bank tribes – will provoke wider unrest.
Jordan also faces mounting challenges associated with the Syrian conflict. While Jordanians are fearful of similar unrest – “we don’t want to be like Syria and people are worried to come out and protest” one Herak leader said last week – the conflict cuts across fragile fault lines.
On the economic front, the burden of more than 300,000 Syrian refugees will be immense. Given refugee needs for food, water, energy supplies, healthcare and schooling, Jordan's infrastructure will be severely stretched. (It is to Jordan's immense credit that it has kept its borders open without wider international support.) At the same time, there are growing concerns that the rise of Islamists in Syria will empower Jordan’s Muslim Brotherhood, giving them greater sway to make more maximalist demands if they are not brought back into the political mainstream. “We don’t like the Brotherhood, but if they are not part of the process things will only get worse,” commented one activist.
Faced with these imminent challenges, the King may now be seeking to chart a more inclusive path forward. Opposition figures and diplomats describe some positive changes in the palace’s approach since the November riots, which appear to have acted as a genuine wake-up call. Activists who have periodically met with Abdullah over the past year say that at their most recent meeting in December he appeared to take them seriously for the first time, and it has been suggested that the new parliament will quickly be pressed to map out a new election law to draw in opposition forces, including the Muslim Brotherhood, to be followed by fresh elections. Speaking at Davos, Abdullah said “If we are going to move the political reform into the future, it has got to be inclusive, everybody has got to have a stake in it.” Meanwhile, the recent decision to launch a widespread investigation into corruption associated with privatization deals and the unprecedented indictment of Walid al-Kurdi, the King’s uncle, last December has generated some goodwill, given the lightening rod issue that corruption has become.
Still, it remains uncertain whether the King will truly pursue this track and, if so, on what terms. Any meaningful political reform would have to include more representative electoral districts and an empowered parliamentary government, both of which would see the King’s position weakened. And despite similar loud promises of reform over the past two years there has been little substantial change. Buoyed by the election, Abdullah may choose to continue holding his ground, potentially leading to another bumpy year for the Hashemite Kingdom.
Barnes-Dacey is the author of the recent publication: ‘Jordanian tremors: elusive consensus, deepening discontent.’ You can follow him @jbdacey.