A sense of despondency and frustration has taken over Jordan’s political activists following the unveiling recently of the draft of a new elections law. After months of deliberations, the government of Prime Minister Awn Khasawneh finally sent the draft law to the Lower House for approval. But reactions to the proposed legislation have been hostile, not only from the country’s Islamists, who make up the bulk of the opposition, but also from loyalists.
The Muslim Brotherhood and its political arm, the Islamic Action Front (IAF), were quick to dismiss the new law, which introduces a mixed voting system, as a deformed copy of the notorious single vote system and its variants, under which previous parliamentary polls were held. But surprisingly, criticism of the proposed law came from representatives of tribes, Jordanians of Palestinian origin and even minority groups like Christians and Circassians.
The new law gives each citizen three votes, two for candidates in an electoral district and one for a national party list, but it limits the number of seats afforded to political parties to 15. Furthermore, parties are not allowed to contest more than five seats each on the national list.
Critics say the draft law undermines political parties’ participation and is unfair to the electorate in heavily populated areas like Amman and Zarqa, where most Jordanians of Palestinian origin reside.
The Islamists have already vowed to boycott the next elections if this law is approved. They did the same at the time of the last elections, which produced an unpopular Lower House that most Jordanians want to replace.
The government, on the other hand, defended the new law. It said that deputies had the right to amend it and come up with a better voting system. But the Islamists and others see little value in official assurances.
The draft legislation was supposed to be the last major political reform in a series of steps that were initiated by King Abdullah and carried out by governments. Since the flare-up of the Arab Spring and the popular demonstrations throughout the region last year, Jordan had seen weekly protests calling for “regime reform” that would bring about representative governments, end official corruption and curtail security influence in public life.
Unlike other countries, Jordan’s protests were largely peaceful. They were not massive in terms of participants. It is on talk shows, online news websites and professional associations’ political lectures that one would notice the rise in nuanced calls for political reforms and denouncement of key political and economic figures who were connected to the highest decision-making circle.
King Abdullah has repeatedly lauded the Arab Spring and reiterated his commitment to launching political reforms. He has supported major constitutional amendments, recommended by a Royal Committee, which were later adopted by Parliament.
These included the setting up of a Constitutional Court and an independent electoral committee. The Parliament also passed a Political Parties Law that promised to breathe life into the Kingdom’s anaemic political parties.
A National Dialogue Committee was also set up late last summer to look into urgent political reforms, especially the elections law which has always been a contentious subject. It called for an enlargement of the national party list and for proportional representation. But its recommendations were ignored by the Khasawneh government.
The new formula, now in Parliament, is being viewed as a setback in the drive for political reforms.
Still, it will take months for the existing Parliament to approve the new legislation. Some observers doubt that the government can deliver on the King’s promise to hold new elections this year.
The most that they expect is for the government to organise municipal elections, which were supposed to take place earlier this year.
Some pundits in the local media accused Khasawneh of breaching an earlier agreement with the Muslim Brotherhood. They said that the former international jurist has yielded to outside pressures and presented a law that is designed to curtail Islamist representation.
A few days ago, the Lower House introduced a surprise amendment to ban religious parties. The IAF was incensed. It now appears that the brief honeymoon between the government and the Islamists is over.
Jordan’s troubles go beyond the issue of immediate political reforms. The Kingdom’s economy is in a dire straits and an earlier promise by GCC countries to bail out Jordan through a $5 billion aid package, over five years, is yet to be fulfilled.
The budget deficit is increasing at an alarming rate; the energy bill alone has surpassed $2 billion since the start of the year. Foreign debt has already exceeded $21 billion. In addition, Jordan has to cope with the influx of about 100,000 Syrian refugees and the loss of transit trade through Syria.
There are signs that Jordan is coming under pressure to depart from its somewhat neutral position on the Syrian crisis and take sides as a condition for receiving aid.
The suspension of the peace process between Palestinians and Israelis has cast a shadow over the future of the two-state solution, which Jordan supports wholeheartedly.
These are difficult times for Jordan, both domestically and regionally. The anger over the new elections law may reignite public protests and stymie the internal political process. Economic pressures will not go away anytime soon and the government has failed to present a roadmap for recovery for the near future.
Shunned from active participation in a new political deal, the Islamists are expected to resume their protests. That could lead to confrontation and to an unexpected political dead end.
The writer is a journalist and political commentator based in Amman.