The Implications of Elections in Jordan

7 MINS READJan 22, 2013 | 15:00 GMT
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Jordanian Protesters from the Islamic Action Front party and other opposition parties in Amman on Jan. 27, 2012

The results of Jordan's parliamentary elections on Jan. 23 will be a telling indicator of the standing of King Abdullah II's regime with tribal East Bankers, Palestinian-Jordanians, and particularly with the Jordanian Muslim Brotherhood, which itself is divided on how best to advance its goals.

The results will probably do little to fundamentally challenge the regime's stability, but the composition of the new parliament will help determine popular reaction to the subsidy cuts Abdullah and the parliament will have to make in order to address Jordan's economic challenges. The last time the government lifted fuel subsidies, ensuing protests called for the fall of the regime, and Jordan's ongoing economic woes weaken the regime's standing in relation to both its citizens and other countries in the region.

The Islamic Action Front, the political wing of the Jordanian Muslim Brotherhood, has held firm in its decision to boycott the upcoming elections, just as it did in the last round of elections in 2010. Just last week, the party turned down a government offer for increased Senate seats and ministerial portfolios.

Talks between the Islamic Action Front and the regime continue, but the party will probably not change course so close to the election. The Islamic Action Front will instead continue to work toward and advocate the constitutional changes it wants to see — mainly, the redrawing of electoral districts that currently skew voting to favor the tribal East Bankers, who have historically formed the core of Abdullah's support. However, the Muslim Brotherhood is not a monolithic organization, and a significant current has emerged within the group that supports participating in elections, creating a tactical divergence that undermines the Brotherhood's larger goals.

The regime has made small concessions for the upcoming elections that could grant the Brotherhood an increase in clout in the parliament on the condition that Islamists participate in the government. The number of seats reserved for political parties was increased from 17 to 27, and perhaps most important, the single non-transferrable vote has been replaced with a mixed electoral system. The single-vote system came into effect in 1993 — four years after the Brotherhood performed strongly in 1989 parliamentary elections — as part of Abdullah's efforts to circumscribe the growth of the Brotherhood's influence.

The single non-transferrable vote meant that instead of voting for a number of different seats in the same district — allowing voters to vote both for members of their like tribe and for Muslim Brotherhood candidates — voters were forced to choose just one candidate, a decision they often made on tribal and not ideological lines. Its elimination could mean that there is a chance for the Muslim Brotherhood to make small progress in the upcoming elections.

The Brotherhood's Two Main Factions

Al-Hayat reported Jan. 22 that some Brotherhood members, fearing that the Islamic Action Front's boycott will undercut the Brotherhood's influence in the government, have in recent days been encouraging Jordanian voters to cast their votes for Brotherhood candidates. Also, a group within the Brotherhood in November unveiled what it called the Zam Zam Initiative — a proposal from members of the Muslim Brotherhood advocating active participation in Jordanian governance as an integral way for the Brotherhood to act as a force for change. 

The media, referencing these among other examples, has made much of a supposed split within the Jordanian Muslim Brotherhood, but it is important to remember that the tension between what the Jordanian Brotherhood calls hawks and doves within its ranks is not a new phenomenon. These two strategies — one side wanting to push the regime toward gradual change from the outside while the other urges working with the system in order to reshape it — are familiar tropes in the Jordanian Brotherhood. The two factions are not engaged in a zero-sum competition; rather, the competing strategies illustrate a group that is not yet able to turn against the regime. Supporters of an election boycott have indicated they will abstain from supporting protesters demanding the reinstatement of food, fuel and electricity subsidies, and in the past the Brotherhood has refrained from drawing supporters from anti-austerity protests. 

That said, the Islamic Action Front's stance on boycotting parliamentary elections shows that there is a disagreement in tactics within the Brotherhood, one that the king is attempting to use to the regime's advantage and one that does indeed undermine the movement. Abdullah has been able to shore up support from the tribal East Bankers by reportedly using covert subsidies and monetary allowances in addition to assuring them representation in parliament.

The Islamic Action Front is betting that the pressures on the kingdom will persist and that it is to the Brotherhood's advantage not to be associated with the government. Still, the overall impact of the boycott is lessened by the fact that some Islamists vocalize the need to participate in the government to effect change. This divergence allows Abdullah to strengthen his own bargaining position, and by playing the East Bankers off the Brotherhood and the Palestinians, Abdullah is showing he maintains some leverage — no faction wants another to become more powerful, and each understands that Abdullah is integral to maintaining that balance.

Managing the Subsidy Cuts

It is no coincidence that rumors are circulating that the regime and the new parliament will institute a new round of price hikes on gasoline shortly after the election. Abdullah is hoping the legitimacy of a newly elected parliament will make the measures seem less onerous and will give popular protests another target aside from the monarchy. The price hikes could include a 13 percent spike in the price of low-octane gasoline as well as a cut in a set of subsidies on electricity that in 2012 made up $2 billion of the $2.8 billion Jordan paid out in energy subsidies.

Jordan has to install these measures in order to decrease its public debt to satisfy the conditions attached to a $2 billion loan Jordan received from the International Monetary Fund in July 2012. The loan, and whatever financial assistance Jordan can hope for from countries such as Saudi Arabia that have contributed aid in the past, can only temporarily relieve Jordan's precarious economic position. The country lacks sufficient energy import infrastructure and significant domestic energy reserves and has had to rely in the past on subsidized energy imports from its neighbors. But Egypt has decreased its assistance and become an unreliable supplier, and just last week Jordan had to ask Iraq to reopen its borders — which had been closed on account of security issues stemming from Sunni protests in Anbar — so that the 10,000 barrels per day of oil that Jordan imports from Iraq (approximately 10 percent of Jordan's total imports) could reach Amman. The Iraqi border has since been reopened, but its closure last week underscores Jordan's lack of a stable supplier. 

Jordan could receive much-needed financial stimulus and investment from Saudi Arabia and the Gulf Cooperation Council countries, but any such aid would be conditional. One potential condition would be an assurance from Abdullah that he would keep the Muslim Brotherhood contained — Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and other regional players are not interested in financing Abdullah if it means enabling the rise of another regional branch of the Brotherhood. Jordan might also be asked to open its border with Syria for use in supporting the Syrian rebels.

Amman has sought to limit the effects of the Syrian conflict in its own country, not wanting to be exposed to the sectarian violence that would inevitably come from President Bashar al Assad's fall, but the pressure on Amman to increase its backing of the Syrian rebels will pick up as Jordan's economic situation worsens. Amman will also need to worry about providing water and power to its citizens during the hot summer months and will be forced to accommodate refugees spilling into the country because of the conflict in Syria — in the last week alone, more than 10,000 refugees have moved into Jordan.

Jordan's upcoming parliamentary elections will offer considerable insight into the strength of Abdullah's regime and will reveal how successful he has been in balancing the interests of the different groups that make up Jordanian society. The Islamic Action Front seems likely not to participate, giving cause for more street protests, which could undermine the legitimacy of the elections and prevent Abdullah from using parliament to deflect public criticism. But the more important issue facing the kingdom will be finding a way to continue the austerity measures that are the result of Jordan's economic woes without sparking destabilizing popular unrest. And for now, Amman's limited financial resources, the threats to its energy supply and an increasingly complex domestic political situation will further complicate efforts to deal with those issues.

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