Jordanians who voted last week for a new legislature chose stability over uncertainty and by doing so they gave the regime a much needed boost to pursue its version of political and economic reforms. Most pundits got it wrong the day before. They talked about a lackluster campaign by over one thousand candidates running for the 150-seat Lower House, and they pointed to two years of public protests calling for political and constitutional reforms. They highlighted the drawbacks in a controversial election law that favored tribal figures and wealthy businessmen and they alluded to growing frustrations over official corruption, nepotism and failure by successive governments to deal with economic challenges. They expected a low turnout of voters and a political setback for the regime.
They were wrong. As polls closed the newly formed Independent Election Commission (IEC), which oversaw the voting process, declared that a record 56 percent of registered voters had cast their vote. The figure was higher than anyone had anticipated. The opposition, led by the Islamic Action Front (IAF), cried foul. It had boycotted the election and said that voter turnout will be exceptionally low. But unlike in previous years, this election was open, free and transparent. International observers had certain reservations but they vouched for its integrity. King Abdallah and his government had guaranteed its credibility and regardless of the final results they had kept their promise.
After two years of public protests demanding reforms, the king was able to navigate the country through treacherous waters. He delivered some important constitutional and political reforms; amending the constitution, forming a Constitutional Court, the IEC, introducing national lists to the election process and firing an unpopular Parliament. He promised additional reforms once the elections were over. He even talked about an evolving constitutional monarchy, much different from the one he inherited more than a decade ago. The opposition, a loose alliance between the Islamists, the country’s most organized political force, and smaller secular parties, was never impressed.
It demanded immediate concessions and wanted a more favorable election law.
But election results showed that their size and influence were exaggerated.
Jordanians ignored calls to boycott the polls and even in opposition hotbeds like Tafileh and Maan voter participation reached more than 70 percent.
King Abdallah’s keen reading of the domestic and regional scenes won the day. The initial euphoria surrounding the Arab Spring had subsided by the end of last year. Jordanians became skeptical of its end results as they watched events unfold in Egypt, Tunisia and Syria. In conservative tribal regions of the country, as well as in urban areas, fear of an Islamist agenda to take over the country became prominent. It did not help that the head of the Muslim Brotherhood, Sheikh Hammam Said, talked about an Islamic state in Jordan at an opposition rally a week before the elections.
But the king said that the new Parliament will launch a fresh political process in Jordan beginning with the formation of parliamentary governments.
The composition of the new legislature had disappointed observers. Like previous Parliaments it is comprised mostly of tribal figureheads, moderate Islamists and wealthy businessmen. The national lists with 27 seats, introduced to increase the presence of political parties and coalitions in the legislature, had proved an utter failure. Only one list, belonging to a moderate Islamist party, was able to win three seats. The rest were shared by more than 20 lists. In the final analysis the new Lower House has no viable opposition. It is unlikely that it will oversee major political reforms.
Elections have become an end and not a mean for change in Jordan. While Jordanians voted for stability and continuity, allowing the regime to fulfill its own vision for reforms, their expectations are now higher than before. They want to see a genuine campaign to uproot corruption and bring those who pilfered money and benefited from their official position to justice. And after three years of recession they want to see light at the end of the tunnel.
The new government will have many challenges to overcome. Last time the government adopted austerity measures, by ending fuel subsidies, Jordanians took to the streets and violent confrontations ensued. The outgoing Prime Minister, Dr. Abdullah Nsour, has talked about necessary measures to raise the cost of electricity soon. The temporary hiatus in public protests may end abruptly if the government implements these new measures.
There is a sense that the core of Jordan’s problems is not political but economic and that if the economy begins to recover this year and the challenges of unemployment and poverty are met then things will cool down.
So far the king has been able to stay a step ahead of the opposition. But surmounting economic problems, made even worse by the presence of more than 300,000 Syrian refugees in the country, will prove to be his biggest challenge in the coming few months.
Osama Al Sharif is a journalist and political commentator based in Amman.