Jordan Defies Expectations, Again

The Hashemite kingdom muddles on towards reform.

Since Jordanians went to the polls on Tuesday, September 20, analysis of the parliamentary elections has emphasized two consistent themes: “low turnout” and “the Muslim Brotherhood returns to power.” The raw results give some support to these bullet points. Turnout was low, nearly 20 percent off the average of the last three election cycles, and one of the lists affiliated with the Jordan’s Islamist opposition won fifteen seats. However, whether these results are read as incremental efforts at reform or harbingers of doom often depends on how one sees the regime and its relations with the West and its Arab and non-Arab neighbors.

With a few notable exceptions, much of the limited analysis of the eighteenth parliamentary elections reflects an effort to reinterpret Jordan’s complex political and social landscape through the lens of other trends and conflicts in the region. For those awaiting the long overdue arrival of Jordan’s Arab Spring, the low turnout and the large, yet lower-than-expected number of seats won by the Muslim Brotherhood are testament to the depth of popular frustration with the regime. For others the fifteen seats won by Jordan’s wing, or rather a wing of Jordan’s wing, of the Muslim Brotherhood somehow represents a “plurality” of the 130 member parliament, and is what the parliament would look like if Jordanians of all stripes and national origins went to the polls and voted in accordance with their presumed inclinations.

In a similar vein, the success of the “Together” list, which ran on an explicitly non-sectarian, secular, and pluralist platform, is generally discounted simply on the grounds they competed in the “elite” and therefore non-representative third district of Amman. The fact that the number one candidate on the “Together” list, Khaled Awad, had nearly as many votes as Atef Tarawneh, speaker of the house for the last parliament, is glossed over. It would seem that votes in Karak are somehow more representative of the political climate in the kingdom, than those in the liberal districts of Amman—or at least more representative of the dominant narrative, which casts Jordan as perennially split between an urban, Islamist, Palestinian opposition and a tribal, “East Bank,” loyalist hinterland.

Analysis of the most recent electoral law often highlights how amendments were designed to create the appearance of reform as opposed to actual reform. Yes, the much-criticized one-man-one-vote law was repealed, but so were the twenty-five nationwide proportional seats introduced in 2013. Organizing the lists at the district level could only mean an effort to ensure parliament remained stocked with loyalists, just like with quotas for minorities such as Christians and Circassians, who have traditionally backed the regime.

The fact that the Islamic Action Front (IAF)—the opposition party associated with the Muslim Brotherhood in Jordan—was able to make its own political hay with the new system didn’t seem to alter the perception of the system being stacked against the opposition. It is worth noting that despite the deck being stacked against them, the IAF still managed to field 120 candidates in twenty lists across the country, each with at least one female candidate lined up for the one guaranteed seat for a woman allotted to each district. The IAF also forged unabashedly quota-maximizing alliances with Circassians and Christians when rebranding itself as the National Coalition for Reform.

Nevertheless, the fact the IAF won five fewer seats than the twenty seats that they were predicted to take, was enough for some to render a verdict on the integrity of the elections. Surely, the low turnout in Zarqa and Amman must mean a truly representative parliament elected on the basis of a truly representative election law would have been largely Islamist. The fact that the lowest turnout in the country was, again, the more liberal third district of Amman, did not seem to suggest the progressive “Together” list may have taken many more seats as well.

Of course, intimations of brewing social tensions and the fixation with the imminent eruption of popular discontent are not exactly new themes in the analysis of Jordan. On the contrary, analysts have been predicting the regime’s collapse since the 1950s, if not before. The kingdom’s stubborn refusal to implode has done little to dampen enthusiasm for the prediction or deter anyone from grafting that expectation onto the results of the most recent election.

A closer, more nuanced view of Jordan’s elections is reassuring and concerning at the same time. The Islamists are just not that popular in the kingdom after several years of in-fighting, bench sitting, and a host of other activities that smack to many as the same brazen self-promotion associated with the air-brushed head-shots of the tribal candidates. On the other hand, widespread voter apathy does reflect popular dissatisfaction with the prior parliament, and reveals the limits of the regime’s attempts to parcel out reform in manageable doses. Moreover, is an ominous sign of more extremist visions gaining traction in the void created by the lackluster performance of Jordan’s opposition parties.

The simple fact that Jordan held elections without any real incident in the midst of a regional maelstrom is an incontrovertible sign of the kingdom’s tenacity. Jordanians are a famously cantankerous lot, and the country’s economic and political challenges are real, but the kingdom has kept its head above the water while the rest of the region is in turmoil. There are ominous signs of growing extremism, like the murder of Nahed Hattar, a prominent Christian leftist facing charges of insulting Islam, by an Islamist imam from East Amman. However, the very real success of the “Together” list also speak to the overlooked presence of a more progressive, or at least tolerant component of the citizenry that would just like a little less sectarianism, and a little more reform and accountability in their government.

Yes, the song in Jordanian politics is largely unchanged. But we shouldn’t forget that defying expectations has also been a consistent component of the national melody.

Allison Hodgkins is an assistant professor of international security and conflict management in the Department of Public Policy at the American University in Cairo.