The Middle East Channel

Jordan’s new electoral law: reform, reaction, or status quo?

Jordan finally unveiled its new electoral system last week, after long months of anxious speculation and promises that the new law -- passed after the early dissolution of parliament -- would demonstrate the regime's commitment to liberal reforms. Reviews from Jordanian reformists have been devastating, however, with the new law described as everything from "disappointing" to "a disaster." Their dismay is easy to understand.  While the new law does make some key changes that reformers were demanding, it is not at all transformative and at most makes some minor adjustments to the status quo.  Given the realities of monarchical power within Jordanian politics, however, the details of parliamentary elections are not really the main point. The new law touches upon a much deeper struggle over identity politics within Jordan -- an identity politics whose most defiant and demonstrative voice is not at all rooted in the "usual suspects" of Palestinian or Islamist opposition, but rather in the ruling Transjordanian elite itself. Its implications will be felt not only on domestic change in Jordan, but also on the attempts to resolve the broader Israeli-Palestinian conflict in the region.

Like the election laws which came before it, the new law is a temporary measure designed to set the ground rules for the parliamentary elections scheduled for late this fall. This follows the November 2009 dissolution of parliament -- two years before the completion of its term. That move was met with surprisingly little opposition, but rather with a certain palpable relief, given the widespread belief across Jordanian society that the parliament was hopelessly ineffective and that corruption had become endemic. The regime has tilted more consistently in a conservative direction over the last few years, essentially siding with the more reactionary traditional elite over the reformers. It periodically provides small elements of reform and change to keep those reformers (and foreign critics) at bay, usually with new slogans and marketing campaigns having more prominence than the actual reforms. As one disappointed reform activist told me recently, the monarchy's "words are with the reformers, but its actions are for the status quo."

When King Abdullah II appointed a new government following the dissolution of parliament, he charged it with producing a new and improved electoral law and carrying forth the reform process. Yet the actual appointments sent different signals. The new deputy prime minister tasked with implementing reform was Rajai Muasher, a vocal opponent of the liberalization and reform process. As prime minister, the king appointed Samir Rifai, scion of a powerful, conservative, and consummate insider family. Indeed Rifai became the fourth member of his family to serve as prime minister since Jordan's independence.

The Rifai government unveiled its new electoral law in anticipation of parliamentary elections this fall. The new law responds to some key reformist demands by adding four more seats specifically in Amman, Irbid, and Zarqa -- all major cities with large Palestinian populations and all historically underrepresented in parliament. Also of importance, the regime doubled the quota for women's representation (introduced in the 2007 election) from six to 12 parliamentary seats. The law also maintains the practice of guaranteed representation for key minority groups, with nine seats reserved for Christians and three more for Jordan's Circassian or Cherkess minority.

The law does not, however, address any of the many proposals to strengthen political parties in Jordanian politics. It maintains the one-person, one-vote system -- which virtually every reformist trend has called to change since its adoption in 1993 --  and eschews any attempt to shift toward proportional representation or party lists. Instead, the law adds more parliamentary seats (from 110 to 120 overall) and changes the current electoral districts to electoral "zones," each of which is broken down into multiple subdistricts. Voters will be able to vote for one candidate in any subdistrict (within their designated electoral zone) that they choose.

What is noticeably missing, therefore, is implementation of one of the main recommendations of the much-heralded National Agenda of 2005. The National Agenda commission was a broad-based group appointed by the king and charged with creating the architecture for political and economic reform in the kingdom for years to come. Its recommendations had tackled the issue of electoral reform by specifically attempting to curb "tribalism" and instead encourage more nationally oriented parties. It had proposed a gradual shift in the electoral system, maintaining district representation, while also adding elements of proportional representation and party lists. Variations on this general idea have been pushed by key opposition groups as well. Jordan's large Islamist movement, for example, has consistently argued that Jordan's electoral laws are routinely used to dampen the more "natural" strength and support they believe they would enjoy in a fairer system.

Instead, the 2010 elections will be contested in a way that, despite the minor reforms, should minimize the development of political parties and encourage localized rather than national voting. It should also ensure a parliament that is once again largely elected based on tribal linkages, far outweighing whatever strength the democratic opposition is able to muster. And that is, of course, precisely the point. Why? If the regime dissolved parliament because of its alleged dissatisfaction with its conservative tendencies, why create a law which reproduces the same likely outcomes? What, exactly, do the status quo elites who demanded this approach think they are doing? 

The answer is that they think they are securing the regime and even the nation against urgent foreign and domestic challenges to the very nature and identity of Jordan as a Hashemite state. The battle over the new election law, like so much in Jordanian politics, is permeated by the demographic and political battles over the role of its citizens of Palestinian origin and the prospects of an eventual Palestinian state. Every move that Israel's far-right government makes seems to dim prospects for a Palestinian state and a two-state solution. This, in turn, has led many in Jordan's largely East Bank or Transjordanian political elite to fear that Israel still intends to resolve its Palestinian problem at Jordanian expense. Jordan's most powerful right-wing elements have therefore mobilized to avoid that outcome at any cost. These fears have even led groups of retired officers to publish unprecedented critiques of perceived government weakness in addressing these concerns.

While Israeli policy has clearly aggravated fears on the Jordanian right, so too has the domestic reform process. Economic liberalization and privatization have empowered Jordan's largely Palestinian business class, alienating many East Bank Jordanian families whose power base had been in large state-run industries. Similarly, political liberalization has provided moderate electoral successes for Jordan's Islamist movement, alarming Jordan's conservative secular elites. Given that Islamist electoral strength is based heavily in urban Palestinian districts, these are actually mutually reinforcing fears. In each case there is a pervasive sense -- among reactionary elites at least -- that Jordan's real identity is being steadily undermined both from the outside and from within.

Indeed, these status quo elites see destabilization and insecurity everywhere they look: to the west in Israel and Palestine, to the east in Iraq, within the economy as Jordan too is affected by the global downturn, and even in domestic politics as external conflicts have brought terrorism within Jordan itself (in the form of the Amman suicide bombings on Nov. 9, 2005, by al Qaeda in Iraq militants). For these reasons, Jordan's most reactionary elites -- with strong bases in the armed forces and intelligence services -- are playing ever greater roles in Jordanian politics and producing the duality of considerable moderation in foreign policy, while also pursuing more reactionary policies aimed at minimizing reform at home.

As these identity, policy, and reform debates continue, it is clear that the forces of the status quo have the upper hand. This is not, however, without cost. Expectations of real and lasting reform were very high a decade ago. Now each great new reform initiative is greeted with disappointment by the general public. The general level of disillusionment can be expected to carry over into the 2010 parliamentary elections, and the regime will therefore get the conservative, traditional, tribalistic, and pro-regime parliament that it wants. But it would be a mistake to underestimate the level of domestic discontent boiling just below the surface, especially as it seems to increase with each new initiative of "reform."  

Curtis R. Ryan is associate professor of political science at Appalachian State University and author of Jordan in Transition: From Hussein to Abdullah  and Inter-Arab Alliances: Regime Security and Jordanian Foreign Policy.

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The Middle East Channel

Fifth columns in the Gulf?

The discovery in Kuwait earlier this month of an alleged spy cell working for Iran's Revolutionary Guards has sent tremors throughout the Gulf, raising fears of Iranian meddling in the region's domestic affairs to near hysteria. At the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) summit in Riyadh following the incident, Gulf leaders quietly deferred to Kuwait to handle the incident. But in the Gulf and pan-Arab press, the Arabian Peninsula is widely portrayed as under siege by a network of Iranian subversives and local proxies, stretching from north Yemen to Dubai to Manama. Comparisons to Iran's revolutionary adventurism in the 1980s abound.

While the full extent of Iran's current clandestine influence remains murky, the "proxy narrative" is instructive more for what it reveals about Gulf insecurities -- both domestic and regional -- than any truths about Iran's capabilities or intentions. And perhaps more importantly, it shows that the Iranian threat to the Gulf -- while certainly potent in terms of naval warfare and ballistic missiles -- is ultimately ideological, symbolic, asymmetric, and not easily contained with conventional arms.

During our recent travel in Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (UAE), we found that many of these fears are closely related to the impending U.S. pullout from Iraq and the belief that the resulting vacuum will empower Iran to maneuver more freely in Gulf affairs. Even with U.S. forces still in Iraq, regional leaders have grown increasingly alarmed over Iran's influence and reach since the 2003 removal of Saddam Hussein, which regional actors perceive as upsetting the regional balance of power. Even though Iraq's ability to balance Iranian influence during the 15 years before the 2003 invasion was always doubtful, the demise of a once powerful Sunni-led Arab state and its replacement with a Shiite-dominated government with longstanding ties to Iran has had a dramatic psychological impact. What is particularly troubling to Arab leaders is that Iran's influence has not only increased in its near abroad (Iraq), but also is believed to stretch across the broader region to the "shores of the Mediterranean," as one former Egyptian diplomat told us. In conversations with Gulf leaders we found a good deal of resignation that Iraq had effectively "fallen" to Iran, leading some to focus instead on Yemen, Lebanon, and Gaza as more hopeful arenas to roll back Iranian influence.   

The reality of Iranian power is actually far more limited than such perceptions suggest. For one thing, Iran's weak conventional military and political and economic unrest at home limit its ability to project influence. Iran's 2009 presidential election and subsequent domestic turmoil may have also provided an internal distraction from Tehran's regional agenda and tarnished Iran's rejectionist luster among Arab publics.  Moreover, Iran faces push-back even from its staunchest allies in Iraq and certainly from its other state and nonstate allies, which are pursuing local agendas not entirely aligned with Iranian interests.  

Nonetheless, perceptions often drive policy in the Middle East, and Arab fears of Iran are compounded by the perceived erosion of U.S. power -- a perception little changed by U.S. military successes in Iraq after the surge and Anbar Awakening. Added to this is the growing disappointment with the Obama administration's peace process diplomacy, which is viewed as critical in undermining Iranian influence. In the UAE and Saudi Arabia, there was widespread consternation about the lack of viable levers against Iran; officials opposed military action as destabilizing to the broader region, yet also criticized sanctions as ineffective. At the same time, they view U.S. engagement efforts with Iran suspiciously, fearing the United States will cut a deal with Tehran at the expense of Arab partners -- but then are at a loss when pressed to suggest alternatives. One member of the Saudi royalty opined that it was simply a matter of waiting for generational change in Iran. "After all," he said, "it took us 50 years to defeat the Soviet Union." The result is that Gulf regimes are engaged in a careful balancing act that avoids antagonizing Iran even while accepting a steady supply of U.S. military assistance.  

Given their paralysis on external policy, the Gulf states have turned inward, seeing the hidden hand of Iran behind a broad spectrum of local dissent, political opposition, and insurgency. Whether justified or not, the climate of fear has had a toxic effect on domestic politics, particularly with regard to the integration of local Shiites and political reform more broadly. It has provided grist to hard-line voices, particularly in Saudi Arabia and Bahrain, who oppose concessions to Shiite identity and have used the specter of Iranian influence to cast doubt on the nationalist bona fides of local Shiites. In Bahrain, for example, Salafi parliamentarians recently attacked the main Shiite bloc for clandestinely supporting the Huthis of Yemen and being agents of Iran. In Saudi Arabia, this atmosphere has put the Shiite community on the defensive, forcing Shiite leaders to once again "prove" their loyalty to the kingdom and fend off accusations about their divided loyalties.  

The domestic and regional political reverberations from the Iraq war are likely to affect perceptions of Iran's ascendancy for years to come. While U.S. policymakers are understandably focused on the nuclear challenge, the regional alarm over Iran is often much more closely linked to Iran's political and ideological agenda. Missile defense and arms sales may be a critical element of preparing for a future with a nuclear-armed Iran, but the most effective way to contain Iranian influence may be on the political, not military, battlefield. Movement on Arab-Israeli peace, preventing failed states and encouraging better governance may prove more successful in diminishing both Iranian penetration and the ability of Arab regimes to exploit the specter of Iran for domestic, parochial purposes.  

Frederic M. Wehrey is a senior policy analyst and Dalia Dassa Kaye is a senior political scientist at the Rand Corporation. They are co-authors of The Iraq Effect: The Middle East After the Iraq War.

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