Jordan teeters on edge of political instability

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King Abdullah (23 October 2012)
Image caption,
The king says the elections will be a qualitative leap in Jordan's political history

Observers of Jordan believe the early parliamentary elections scheduled for 23 January represent "make-or-break time" for King Abdullah II, with the opposition threatening to boycott the polls, reports the BBC's Dale Gavlak in Amman.

A model of security in a very unstable Middle East, Jordan could now be teetering on the cusp of political conflict and instability.

It is a scenario that King Abdullah has so far managed to weather, unlike four other longstanding leaders who were swept away by the volatile Arab Spring's winds of change.

Unlike them, the absolute monarch says that he has been guiding Jordan's reform process, responding to street protesters' demands for more political say.

A Constitutional Court has been set up to ensure a division of power between executive, legislative and judicial offices. A new, but controversial electoral law governing the poll has been devised.

The forthcoming elections, considered the centrepiece of the king's reforms, also will see for the first time an elected prime minister, a concession by Abdullah, who has appointed past premiers.

But are these changes enough and for how long?


"The elections are going to be the dividing line," says Sean Yom, a Jordan expert at Temple University in Philadelphia.

"They're supposed to be the inaugural elections of the new electoral law, a whole new system of democratic governance. If various opposition forces do not see the elections as credible, you will see real signs of instability," he said.

Image caption,
This month saw the biggest opposition protest seen in the kingdom since the start of the Arab Spring

He also does not expect that significant change will be achieved by the new parliament, even with the prime minister emerging from its ranks for the first time.

Mr Yom believes that the prime minister and cabinet will be vetted by both the palace and the country's powerful intelligence service, the so-called Mukhabarat.

He argues that the House of Representatives lacks the basic authority to introduce laws or formulate the budget and that the new electoral law "does not change this absence of checks and balances".

Jordanian analyst Labib Kamhawi also criticises the electoral law, saying it "excludes people based on their political beliefs or ethnic origins".


Jordan's largest opposition group, the Muslim Brotherhood, has already announced that its political wing, the Islamic Action Front, will boycott the vote.

Image caption,
The opposition has been angered by an electoral law amendment passed in July

It claims that nothing has changed to rectify an electoral system it believes is skewed against it in favour of the king's traditional Bedouin loyalists.

Other opposition parties, trade unionists and leftists say they, too, will boycott the elections.

There is also apathy among Jordanians of Palestinian origin, who make up 60% of the country's 6.5 million people but have little political power.

Yet the government says high voter registration - more than 2 million of the 3.7 million eligible - proves it is on the right track.

Mr Kamhawi and others question the legitimacy of some registrations.

"Many say they went to register and found their cards had already been registered and taken by potential candidates for the vote," Mr Kamhawi says.

Political disorder

Hamza Mansour, who leads the Islamic Action Front, says the opposition wants parliament to have full powers to form a government to be a watchdog over the Cabinet.

He has vowed that the Brotherhood and its supporters will take to the streets "in full force in peaceful struggle" following the elections.

They will not be alone, according to Mr Yom.

He expects young educated Bedouin, who feel marginalised by tribal elders from seeking public office and playing a more prominent role, will also take to the streets in force in the coming period.

Image caption,
Protests in Jordan have been more peaceful than elsewhere in the region

"There will be real movement towards political disorder in Jordan with spontaneous sustained protests and not weekly one-off events," he says.

The demands for change of the Bedouin youth - who have galvanised into political forces, particularly in the north and south of the country - have become more vitriolic, at times publicly criticising Abdullah and calling for his removal from power - a taboo punishable by prison.

'Entrenched elite'

Mr Yom expects "concerted, daily protests to be expressions of grievance against the king who has been given indications that things are not right".

"But because he is cautious or is moving against a very entrenched elite, he is not delivering on the reforms he promised," he adds.

But Mohammed al-Masri of the University of Jordan believes the country's opposition activists are still too divided to muster the critical numbers on the street to bring about a mass movement for change as seen in Egypt, Tunisia, Syria and Libya.

"Building activists groups in Jordan is a process that will take time. It's similar to Egypt from 2003 to 2005, like Kifaya and other social movements," Mr Masri says.

"The fragmentation of Jordanian society means that the process will take longer than other countries to build credible opposition and activist groups."

Image caption,
The Jordanian authorities arrested 11 militants alleged to have planned attacks in the capital

Mr Masri says Jordan's history with the Hashemite monarchy, viewed as moderate and a unifying influence, also suggests that political actors in the country are able to "reach compromises", which is perhaps less likely elsewhere in the region.

"Developments in Syria will also serve to slow opposition activists and give the Jordanian government the oxygen it needs to manoeuvre and bring opponents and regime together," he adds.

Attacks thwarted

While few question the truth of recent revelations that Jordan's intelligence services thwarted a major al-Qaeda-linked plot targeting foreign embassies and shopping malls in the capital, Amman, some wonder about the timing of the announcement earlier this week.

"It could serve an undisclosed plan to rally support behind the government when it is facing tough times on the elections," Mr Kamhawi says.

"Jordanians don't support such subversive activities that could lead to instability and civilian casualties."

"Still, people also have a legitimate right to democracy, transparency and seeing government corruption tackled," he adds. "If the timing of the announcement is intended to serve other state objectives, then people also won't like this."