Earlier this month, King Abdullah of Jordan dissolved parliament and called early elections, prompting large-scale protests with demonstrators calling for changes to the country’s newly enacted electoral law. In an email interview, Sean Yom, an assistant professor of political science at Temple University, discussed protests and reform in Jordan.
WPR: What is at stake in the dispute over Jordan’s electoral law?
Sean Yom: The dispute over the electoral law implicates the very future of democratization in Jordan. Unfairness at the core of the current system rankles almost all members of the opposition, from the Islamist establishment to secular youth movements.
One issue is the gerrymandered districting system, which gives disproportionately greater weight to voters in tribal-dominated rural areas, long seen as the bedrock of the Hashemite monarchy, while underrepresenting Palestinian-dominated cities, in particular Amman and Irbid, long been regarded as bastions of opposition. The second is the balloting system. Under Jordan’s obscure “one man, one vote” system, voters cast only one ballot in their districts, even when there are multiple seats up for grabs. This undermines opposition parties, because conservative independents can exploit their personal wealth or extensive tribal networks to capture personal votes well in advance. The electoral law passed in July gives Jordanians a second vote for a special national list of 27 seats, open to parties and allocated by proportional representation. However, this is less than 20 percent of the lower house’s 150 seats, far below opposition demands and thus unlikely to weaken the pro-government independents that typically dominate the legislature.
The final issue is the structure of authoritarianism itself. Even if parliament were filled with opposition deputies, the king does not select the cabinet from its ranks; in fact, the legislature even lacks the basic authority to introduce laws or formulate the budget. The new electoral law does not change this absence of checks and balances.
WPR: What tools is the monarchy using to address the protests, and to what extent do its actions reflect a long-term strategy rather than tit-for-tat responses?
Yom: The monarchy mistakenly believes that growing social opposition will eventually demobilize, and that it needs only to wait out the protests. Hence, it has only provided shallow liberalizing reforms, such as the new electoral law, while constantly shuffling its appointed governments in response to popular frustration, all the while angling for stronger Western support.
The problem is that the Arab Spring has permanently changed Jordanian public discourse. Citizens are no longer afraid of speaking about controversial issues like royal corruption or the security sector. Connected to fellow activists across the Arab world, they know when reforms are hollow versus meaningful. The regime’s current strategy is thus a holding pattern, not a real solution.
WPR: What will it take for either side to break the cycle of relatively small protests and cosmetic reforms?
Yom: The rhythmic give-and-take of domestic politics has created “stable instability,” in which the opposition remains vocal while the monarchy remains stubborn -- but neither side wishes to cross the ultimate red line. For the opposition, that is directly attacking royal power, either symbolically or physically; for the palace, it is cracking down on protests with brute violence.
The reason for restraint is Syria. Most Jordanians are fearful of escalation given the bloody chaos in their northern neighbor. If Syria does collapse, the monarchy might well declare a state of emergency and halt all reform talk, as large-scale refugee inflows and conflict spillover would threaten the kingdom’s security. Jordan’s Western allies are taking this seriously, as revealed by recent deployments of American and British military personnel there.
* World Politics Review