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Middle East and North Africa

A new Jordanian parliament is unlikely to solve the problems of king or country


Jordanians go to the polls on January 23rd, the day after the Israeli election, but for people of Palestinian origin, who make up a majority in Jordan and a large minority (at least a fifth) in Israel, there are disarming similarities apart from the timing. Increasing numbers of them are likely to boycott the polls in despair at systems that seem designed to keep them out.

Jordanians of Palestinian descent make up less than a tenth of the parliament’s members, thanks to gerrymandering. In two mainly Palestinian districts of Amman, the capital, 310,000 voters elect as many MPs as 122,000 tribesmen in Karak, a southern town where Bedouin predominate. “It’s not the ballots that are rigged as much as the system itself,” says Ahmad Obeidat, one of several former prime ministers who, alongside the kingdom’s largest opposition group, the Muslim Brotherhood, is calling for a boycott of the poll.

Mindful of growing demands for people power, King Abdullah has made a few concessions. Although most MPs still represent their local districts, he has opened a fifth of the seats to candidates standing on national lists and increased the quota for women. But the odds are still stacked against Palestinians. Only a few of the 61 groups competing for the 27 party-list seats are headed by a Jordanian of Palestinian origin. The new parliament, says a former justice minister, will be a clone of its predecessor. It will be dominated by tribesmen of the East Bank, who still dominate the security forces and the state sector, not those of Palestinian descent.

Jordanians argue over whether King Abdullah or his all-powerful security forces are to blame. The king has shied from copying his Moroccan counterpart, who has managed to co-opt his Islamists. Some say King Abdullah’s hands are tied by his East Bank intelligence officers, bent on preserving a system of perks accumulated over decades. Above all, the king and his closest security men seem determined to keep the Muslim Brotherhood and the Palestinians who vote for them out of power. Jordan’s military budget is still not subject to parliamentary scrutiny, says a former senior official; the security service, he adds, has “a veto over cabinet posts, chairs of committees and over half the MPs”. Many MPs, says a former head of intelligence, are bankrolled by the service.

“You can buy votes for 20 dinars [$28],” chuckles an MP seeking a third term in Amman. Some candidates have fancy marquees with chandeliers to canvass votes. Parading Bedouin origins, their billboards sport the names of clans, not policies.

However malleable the new parliament, the king will require it to push through some biting austerity measures demanded by the IMF as the price for bailing out Jordan’s debt-saddled economy. A fairer election would have helped. When the king cut fuel subsidies in November, the Islamists fanned protests by the urban poor resentful of soaring costs. Three people were killed. But now the IMF wants Abdullah to cut soaring electricity subsidies, too. And the IMF wants him to slash the public-sector perks and jobs he showered on East Bankers, nowadays almost as disgruntled as the Palestinians. Whatever the results of the election, the king will still be in a bind.


Source: The Economist

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