- The Washington Times - Tuesday, January 22, 2013

Jordan’s King Abdullah II is touting Wednesday’s parliamentary elections as the centerpiece of political reforms aimed at addressing the simmering discontent in his realm.

But analysts say the vote, which the Muslim Brotherhood and four other smaller opposition parties are boycotting, will produce more instability in Jordan, a key U.S. ally in the Middle East.

At the heart of the unrest lies a new electoral law, which the opposition says ensures that the king’s loyalists get most of the seats in parliament.

The Islamic Action Front, the political arm of the Muslim Brotherhood in Jordan, and a handful of other reform movements have held protests on the eve of the vote. They have demanded that the king relinquish more of his absolute powers to parliament.

“The numbers [at these protests] were relatively big, and this is a clear message that, even if we have a new parliament, this will not change anything on the ground, protests will continue, and we will find ourselves in another political crisis,” Mohammed Hussainy, director of the Identity Center, a Jordanian organization monitoring the elections, said in a Skype interview from Jordan’s capital, Amman.

More than 1,400 candidates, including 191 women, are vying for seats in the 150-member lower house of parliament.

No one, not even the political parties that are taking part in the elections, approve of the new electoral law, said Mr. Hussainy.

“Immediately after the new parliament is set up, we will have demands to change the electoral law again, and this will lead to the same crisis: should the parliament continue or should the parliament be dissolved again?” he said. “Instead of having elections as the key to solve the political crisis, the elections itself have become a crisis.”

The electoral law will not disenfranchise any one group and is open to change by the next parliament, a Jordanian official in Amman said in a background phone interview.

“At the end of the day, His Majesty has a very clear vision for Jordan. It is about developing a democracy that will respect the plurality of Jordanian society,” the official added.

King Abdullah has fired two prime ministers in the past two years in an effort to show he is serious about reforms. In October, he dissolved the parliament and called early elections.

Unlike in other countries in the region where the Muslim Brotherhood had been banned and suppressed, the Islamists in Jordan have been loyal to the Hashemite rulers and have even taken roles in the government. The Islamists derive their support from Palestinians who make up more than half of Jordan’s 6.5 million population.

Most worrying for King Abdullah is dissent from a new youth-based opposition coalition, known as Herak, representing tribal areas that have traditionally been part of his support base.

For the first time since the 1950s, Jordanian lawmakers, not the king, will choose the prime minister.

The new electoral law, however, largely maintains the status quo, analysts say.

“The real concern that people have is that you have had this electoral change and you’re going to get exactly the same parliament that you had before,” David Schenker, director of the program on Arab politics at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, told an audience at the think tank last week.

Danya Greenfield, deputy director of the Atlantic Council’s Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East, said the elections and the culmination of the reform process represent “a missed opportunity on the part of the king and the government to fully implement and actualize the vision that was really put forward.”

“The lack of this progress has cast doubts on the reform process, and the widespread apathy and the lack of enthusiasm that is shown for the elections is really a testament to the mismatch between the king’s rhetoric … and what has actually emerged on the ground,” Ms. Greenfield said at the Atlantic Council last week.

Jordan has weathered the Arab Spring protests that have buffeted the region and toppled longtime rulers in Egypt, Libya, Tunisia and Yemen.

However, a crippling budget deficit, high levels of unemployment and rampant corruption among the ruling elite sparked protests in January of 2011 that have since ebbed and flowed in intensity. In November of last year, protesters uncharacteristically targeted the king after the government raised fuel prices in a desperate attempt to reduce a massive budget deficit.

Jordan is also struggling to cope with an influx of more than 180,000 Syrian refugees who have fled the civil war in their country. These refugees have strained Jordanian resources and good will. But the 22-month-old war in Syria that has left more than 60,000 dead has also steeled Jordanians’ resolve not to go down the path of an armed struggle.

King Abdullah has laid out his vision for a comprehensive reform process and move toward democratization in a series of “discussion papers.”

In one released last week, he said the reforms are not just about changing laws. They are also aimed at getting Jordanians to participate in their government, he said. A full transition to a parliamentary form of government will require the emergence of truly national political parties, he wrote.

“The solution, from the perspective of the regime and the government, is to organize this election and then open a new window for dialogue with the opposition,” said Mr. Hussainy.

The Jordanian official who spoke on background said the king would welcome dialogue with the Islamists.

His Majesty has made many overtures to the Muslim Brotherhood and done everything in his power to be able to incentivize them to join the political process as an equal member of society,” the official said.

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