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Jordan’s Elections and the Muslim Brotherhood’s “soft” opposition

Jordanian King Abdullah II - Award Physical Fitness with Queen Rania and Prince Hashem bin Al Abdullah (May 27, 2008)

Jordanian King Abdullah II – Award Physical Fitness with Queen Rania and Prince Hashem bin Al Abdullah (May 27, 2008) – January 29, 2013 – On January 23rd the Jordanians went to the polls to elect a new parliament, and, in spite of the opposition’s boycott campaign led by the Muslim Brotherhood, these elections have confirmed the large majority of parties loyal to the monarchy. This is no coincidence according to the Muslim Brotherhood and other left-wing groups, which unsuccessfully attempted to have amendments made to the current electoral law assigning only 27 seats of the 150 available ones to national lists, allocating the rest through local constituencies closely linked to Abdallah II’s family.

According to international observers, voting and counting operations were carried out in compliance with the law, at least to a greater extent than compared to other states in the Middle East and North Africa. According to the independent electoral commission, turnout was 56.69%, with 1,280,000 citizens out of almost four million voting. A low turnout was not enough to question loyalty to the king, although 18 candidates linked to the Muslim Brotherhood were elected, as well as a number of left-wing candidates from the pan-Arab movement.

The decision to hold early elections, the first in Jordan since the beginning of the Arab Spring, was taken by Abdallah II following protests that started last October when people took to the streets to protest against cuts made to fuel subsidies. Once again the Jordanian monarch forestalled matters with a strong signal, indicating that its people must be listened to. According to opposition parties this was a strategic choice that never effectively questioned the royal family’s power.

The situation in the country is extremely delicate, with six and a half million inhabitants, of which over half are Palestinians and unemployment at 40%, rising to 60% among those under the age of 30. There is also a constant flow of refugees arriving from Syria in addition to the 450,000 Iraqi refugees already present in the country.

As emphasised in the 2012 Oxford Business Review’s report on Jordan, during this year internal and external pressure has resulted in the country’s entire economic system becoming more fragile, with the state attempting to contain expenditure while promoting growth to try and stem discontent. The protests against the government’s attempt to reduce fuel subsidies and those caused by a rise in the price of essential goods remain a threat. In spite of all these problems, Jordan has continued to expand and according to the International Monetary Fund, which has lent the country $2 billion, the GDP could rise by 3.5% this year to then increase by 4.5% by 2017. Sovereign debt was up 19% at the end of 2012, amounting to a total of $22 billion, 72% of the GDP according to data published by the Finance Ministry.

Cuts made to fuel subsidies were the result of continuous attacks on the gas pipeline that carries gas from Egypt to Jordan (and also to Israel) which has been blown up a number of times. This lack of gas supplies has on one had led Jordan to search for alternative energy sources, while on the other obliged the country to buy more oil and therefore spend more. Ending subsidies increased discontent which the government tried to stem by offering aid to lower income families.

To these financial problems one must add the burden of the Syrian crisis. Last December the Kingdom of Jordan hosted more than 250,000 refugees from Syria and according to UNHCR data, at least another 30,000 people have arrived since the beginning of 2013.

During the last two years, the small monarchy situated in one the world’s most sensitive areas has experienced protests and opposition movements, almost affected but never overwhelmed by the Arab Spring. The pressure exercised by these forces has led to some reform, and the fact that the elections were supervised by an independent committee is a sign of change and greater openness, albeit little change, such as the quota of 15 seats reserved to women, three more than at previous elections, as well as the choice of a prime minister that King Abdallah II will have to appoint in agreement with parliament.

The main opposition party, the Islamic Action Front, has reported that through the selection of candidates this electoral law does not guarantee real competitive plurality while favouring a choice made on a tribal rather than individual choices. In realty the opposition knows well that the monarchy must be preserved, since a hypothetical fall would provide Israel with a pretext for choosing the Eastern bank of the Jordan as the Palestinian homeland and justifying the annexation of the West Bank, in spite of the fact that the kingdom has signed a peace treaty with Tel Aviv.

Palestinians in Jordan are well aware that drastic change in the country’s leadership would result in new imbalances, a feeling confirmed by the results of the Israeli elections.

Jordan plays a strategic role also at an international level, and the country is aware of this. Europe and the United States rely on the monarchy to contain the Syrian crisis also if Assad’s regime should come to an end. Gulf countries too prefer the kingdom to possible new equilibriums should the Jordanian Muslim Brotherhood achieve a majority, also because of the proximity to the Palestinian and Syrian brotherhoods. All this is taking place in spite of the Muslim Brotherhood, representing the so-called “Jordanian exceptional” compared to the state’s relations with Islamist schools of thought, always having coexisted with Hashemite power and its criticism of governments has never historically been aimed at weakening the foundations of the monarchy.

Translated by Fancesca Simmons

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