Real Reform in Jordan? Or More of the Same?

King Abdullah’s multiple attempts to legitimize power have fallen short. He continues to promise the people of Jordan that he will implement reforms and hold fair elections, yet what has come from these promises? Just this week the King urged the opposition to work for change from within parliament, and agreed to release twenty protesters who criticized the monarchy. But gestures such as this leave much to be desired. In order to participate in the upcoming elections the opposition needs more than words and benevolence, they need to believe that the elections lead to the possibility of real change.

Jordan’s economy is struggling. Is the situation really improving for the working class? One must say no, it has not. We the people continue to work tirelessly and gain nothing while major players in the government prosper by engaging in large-scale corruption. This new government simply proves that when it comes to reform, it does not know what to do.

We’ve seen multiple Prime Ministers come and go, yet no real change, and the number of phony promises continue to grow. Promising reform over and over again cannot legitimize a leader. In an interview with BBC, King Abdullah said “If I was Bashar al-Assad, I would step down.” Has the time come for King Abdullah to step down? In a recent speech King Abdullah for the first time called the government a “constitutional monarchy” causing many to applaud and further support the King. How can we praise our leader when we’ve heard promises of this nature before, only to have them go unfulfilled time and time again? Time and again, Prime Ministers have been appointed pledging reform, and time and again they have resigned after their efforts have failed.

Are the people of Jordan supposed to endure malnutrition and starvation without political or social rights until parliamentary elections on January 23rd? Scared to speak up against the government for fear that they will be arrested or worse by the mukhabarat. Every Friday the people of Jordan take to the streets demanding reform, yet coverage remains at a bare minimum. One must shed light to these events, especially during a time when social media has proved to be a true architect of change. In the words of Wael Ghonim, “We cried a lot. Not because we are weak, we cried because we are human beings. Our tears were the bullets that killed 30 years of injustice.”

Recently, the King has made yet more promises about upcoming political reforms.  On October 10th, 2012, he dissolved parliament and called for a general election to be held on January 23rd, 2013. A few days later he appointed Abdullah Ensour as Prime Minister, and Ensour was supposed to be the last PM that the King appointed, with future PMs being selected by parliament. Recently, the King urged the opposition to end its boycott of the elections and work for change through the new parliament, but the opposition, including the Islamic Action Front, which is affiliated with the Muslim Brotherhood, still largely refuses to participate. This is due to inequities in the way that parliament is elected. They are skeptical about pushing for reform through a parliament that elected in a manner designed to favor allies of the King. If the electoral system ensures that parliament is filled will allies of the King, will it really matter whether the PM is appointed by Parliament or by the King?

The upcoming elections are going to be held under a new electoral law passed in July 2012. Under this law, the House of Representatives (the elected lower house) will have its membership increased from 120 to 150 members, but of these members, 108 of them will be elected from districts in the same way that they are now. Of the remaining 42 seats, 27 of them will be elected from a national list, and 15 will be reserved for female candidates under a quota system. Opposition parties claim that the current system favors independent candidates, many of whom are allied with the monarchy, over candidates from political parties.

The electoral system adopted in the recent legislation appears intended to produce a result that is broadly acceptable to those currently holding positions of power, while giving the appearance of change. One of the major inequities is that in the district seats (71 percent of the seats in parliament), independent candidates supportive of the government are frequently able to take advantage of tribal, patronage or family ties to secure election against candidates nominated by political parties. As a result, the vast majority of members of parliament are independents supportive of the monarchy rather than representatives of political parties. For example, in 2007 (the last election that the Islamic Action Front did not boycott), Independents won 98 out 104 seats up for election, compared to six for the IAF (the remaining 6 seats were reserved for female candidates under a quota system). For example, in 2003, Independents won 87 seats (out of 110), compared to 17 for the IAF. Another problem with the electoral law is the fact that rural areas – where the government’s tribal allies live – are overrepresented, while urban areas (with a higher population of Palestinians) are underrepresented. This also effectively gives an advantage to allies of the royal court.

In order for the political process to be taken seriously by both Jordan’s citizens and the opposition, there must be the potential that elections can produce meaningful political change as well as improvements in people’s lives. This is the only way to produce meaningful change during one of the most consequential periods in the modern history of Jordan and the Middle East.

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