Jordan’s recent parliamentary elections were notably free of widespread fraud and registered a respectable 56% voter turnout rate.1 Yet, the technically clean vote belies deeper structural flaws-an emasculated parliament that disproportionately represents rural tribal loyalists and an entrenched culture of tribalism-that impede progress toward a genuine multi-party democracy. As Jordan grapples with significant economic challenges amidst mounting regional turmoil, King Abdallah should move expeditiously to implement real reform by vesting the new parliament with a role in government formation and encouraging the legislature to amend Jordan’s flawed electoral law.
As an election observer with the National Democratic Institute (NDI), I was deployed to Irbid, a northern governorate that borders both Israel and Syria. I observed polling in rural districts with strong tribal dynamics. Issue-based platforms and political parties were virtually absent. Instead, the political stakes centered on highly localized races, with candidates promoting tribal interests, namely ensuring their districts get a fair share of public sector jobs and services.
Several new procedures were implemented to inhibit fraud including an elaborate voter identification system and inking voters’ fingers. In most of the ten polling stations I visited, voters and poll workers alike appeared earnest and genuine in their desire to respect the new regulations. Still, episodes of vote buying, “public voting” and other infractions diminished the election’s overall credibility. Yet, compared to Jordan’s 2007 and 2010 elections, marred by widespread fraud allegations, the vote represents a marked improvement.
The election’s relative success should not breed complacency. The Hashemite kingdom faces major challenges: a faltering economy, rampant corruption, and spillover from Syria’s deepening conflict. Jordan’s worsening economic woes have fueled mounting popular discontent, with unemployment estimated at 30%–among the highest in the region. Lackluster economic growth, diminishing external aid, particularly from the Gulf, and rising energy prices (the flow of cheap Egyptian gas has virtually ceased) have led to a major budget deficit and crushing debt.
Jordan now hosts nearly 300,000 Syrian refugees, further straining limited resources. The largest influx to date-more than 20,000 refugees-arrived during the week of elections. Seeking additional assistance at a recent Gulf donors conference in Kuwait, King Abdallah noted, “We have reached the end of the line. We have exhausted our resources.”
Under increasing financial pressure, Jordan signed a $2 billion loan agreement with the International Monetary Fund (IMF) last August. The IMF deal requires a series of austerity measures to help control public spending, including removing subsidies and other measures. In November 2012, the government lifted fuel subsidies, resulting in a 54% increase in cooking oil prices and widespread rioting. Electricity price hikes are expected within the next few weeks amid fears that violent protests will erupt once again.
The current economic turmoil is a potent reminder that Jordan’s social contract is badly fraying. Public buildings display large photographs of the king and his 18-year-old son and heir apparent, Hussein-a not-so-subtle reminder of the monarchy’s lock on power. Yet, no longer can the government ensure popular quiescence in exchange for jobs, services and government patronage.2 As the well of patronage runs dry, the kingdom must confront a political system driven by tribalism and fueled by government favoritism and entrenched corruption. “Business as usual” is no longer likely to suffice in the face of more austerity measures and deepening societal strains. Instead, the kingdom must look to empower a new class of young and dynamic entrepreneurs. Building a vibrant private sector will be essential for absorbing Jordan’s young labor force, particularly as the government is forced to reduce its bloated public sector labor force.
Last week’s parliamentary elections will only be meaningful if the king seizes on the newly-elected parliament to chart a new path for Jordan. He must begin the long process of transforming Jordan from a tribal kingdom with weak political parties and a rubber stamp parliament to the beginnings of a constitutional monarchy in which the parliament wields real power and genuine political parties develop. Ceding a role to parliament in selecting a new prime minister and cabinet will be a crucial first step. Electoral law reforms that allow for the formation of parliamentary blocs, diminish gerrymandering and correct deep disparities that favor rural tribal areas over urban districts with larger populations of Palestinian origin will also be critical. Together, these steps can begin to build a genuine political system with real political parties. Such bold measures by the king would retroactively confer far greater legitimacy on last week’s election and begin the much-needed process of genuine reform in Jordan.
Mona Yacoubian directs Pathways to Progress: Peace, Prosperity and Change in the Middle East, a joint initiative between the Stimson Center and the George C. Marshall Foundation.
1 Voter participation drops to 40% if calculated on eligible rather than registered voters.
2 Some estimates hold that up to two-thirds of Jordanians are on the public payroll.