AMMONNEWS — For four days in a row this week, youths hurled rocks at police officers, burned tires and damaged properties in the ancient city of Salt, thought to have been built in the days of Alexander the Great.
Local tribal leaders and professional associations called for calm and condemned damage to property but also called on the government to address long-term grievances, including political detentions, rising prices and a lack of popular representation.
More than a year after the Arab Spring challenged the political status quo across the Middle East, leading to the regional rise of the Muslim Brotherhood and the spiraling war in Syria, Jordan is facing a crucial test of whether a new electoral law can quell the rising clamor for meaningful political changes.
Discontent in Jordan has yet to reach the levels that swept away the governing regimes in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya. But since a March 2011 amendment to the kingdom’s Public Gathering Law eased restrictions on the organization of rallies, small but persistent protests have taken place across the country. Social violence, including brawls at universities and tribal clashes, are also on the rise.
In an effort to respond to these pressures, the House of Representatives, the Senate and the king last year approved dozens of constitutional amendments strengthening the rule of law, fostering the role of the judiciary and establishing a constitutional court. The House and Senate have also approved a controversial election law that would increase the representation of political parties in the House, though King Abdullah II has yet to sign it and has sent it back to the legislature for amendment.
“Now more than any other time Jordanians feel the country is at a turning point and they want to have their say,” said Mohammad Sweiden, assistant managing editor of Al Ghad, a local daily.
The old election law has been criticized as favoring loyalists to the regime and tribal leaders because of gerrymandering that tilts toward conservative rural districts over the capital, Amman, and other urban areas, where Jordanians of Palestinian origin and Brotherhood supporters are concentrated.
The result has been a House of Representatives of individuals rather than parties. The system also discouraged political parties because of obstacles to licensing and limited access to seats.
For the first time, an appointed commission will monitor the elections, expected to be held by the end of the year, rather than the Interior Ministry, whose track record in election monitoring has been marred by the lack of transparency and claims of fraud.
After the election law was approved by the House and Senate last week — allocating 17 seats out of 140 for political parties and raising the quota of women to 15 from 12 — opposition groups claimed that the changes were inadequate, threatened to boycott the elections and called on the king to intervene.
“We had recommended a complete system that had larger electoral districts, suggested proportional representation on the governorate level but generally very little has changed,” said Taher Masri, head of the national dialogue committee and president of the Senate during an interview Monday. “The new elections law is contrary to the concept of change.”
The amendment to the law sought by the king is expected to increase the number of seats allocated for political parties from 17 to 27, a gesture many say was spurred by the Muslim Brotherhood’s threat to boycott the elections. The Brotherhood is likely to secure the majority of the allocated seats if it decides to participate in the voting — a decision it has not yet made.
Meanwhile, other political parties have expressed their rejection of the law. “The amendment to the new elections law is not acceptable and does not meet the aspirations of the people,” said Zaki Bani Irshaid of the Islamic Action Front in an interview published this week in Al Ghad. “We don’t want to see the same governing system over and over anymore.”
Samih Maaytah, the government spokesman, said, “Comprehensive political reform cannot be judged solely by the elections law, but at the same time we recognize that the elections law will determine the political representation of the country and its identity.”
The rise of Mohamed Morsi of the Muslim Brotherhood to win Egypt’s first competitive presidential election has raised the influence of Islamist movements across the region.
“The success of the Islamist movement, especially Morsi’s win, gave the Islamists here moral strength and a feeling that it’s our turn but let’s do it in a peaceful way,” said Musa Shteiwi, director of the Center for Strategic Studies at the University of Jordan. “They are elated.”
The government finds itself in a predicament as it tries to move ahead with political changes. Jordan’s geographical position makes it vulnerable to external shocks. Only this week, the government expressed its concern regarding the number of Syrian refugees entering the kingdom. “We have to maintain the security and stability of the country, so some individuals who are suspicious have been turned away at the border,” said Mr. Maaytah, the government spokesman.
The country also has a weak economy and faces an uneasy balancing act between opposition groups calling for comprehensive representation, including the Muslim Brotherhood, and nationalists who oppose a political process that could shift the ethnic balance in the country.
For Ali Habashneh, leader of the National Committee for Retired Officers in Jordan, comprehensive electoral reform means better livelihoods and participation in politics, yet he opposes changes that could lead to major demographic shifts in large urban areas.
Some Jordanians, like Mr. Habashneh, believe that democratization includes efforts to turn Jordan into a permanent home for many Palestinians, playing into the hand of a long-held belief by rightists in Israel who make the claim that “Jordan is Palestine.”
“We want to make sure Jordanians are not alienated from their own country, because they are already suffering from the lack of participation in public life and lack of services in their districts,” said Mr. Habashneh, a retired general.
For now, it remains unclear whether the majority of the population, who do not belong to political parties and are mostly youths, will vote in the next elections.
“The political situation in Jordan is itchy and many sectors are in turmoil,” said Mr. Masri, president of the Senate. “I think the minority of the population is for political reforms, but the majority are for economic reform. It’s hard to see a window of hope right now.”
* The New York Times