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IRI Expert Analyzes What's at Stake in Jordan's 2020 Elections for the Hill

November 4, 2020
 
 
Patricia Karam
 

An economic crisis once again threatens Jordan’s political stability in the wake of legislative elections with the designation of seasoned diplomat and court loyalist Bisher al-Khasawneh to form a new government. This follows the disbanding of parliament and assignment of several former security officials to the Senate. The November 10 election is expected to yield few surprises and deliver more of the same weak parliament amidst increasing tensions.

With a rapidly climbing Covid-19 toll and accusations of coronavirus mismanagement, voter apathy is high: a majority of Jordanians plan to boycott again the upcoming election. Jordan’s economic decline is pronounced with the economy expected to shrink by 6 percent this year, unemployment at its highest at 23 percent (and youth unemployment between 47 percent and 58 percent), and poverty exacerbated by the pandemic. King Abdullah himself seemed to relay fears of a health system collapse if the disease spreads uncontrollably given the country’s limited intensive care beds and resources. With a fresh start, he hopes to assuage disenchantment over economic woes and restrictions on personal freedoms because of rigorous lockdowns.

Outgoing premier Omar al Razzaz’ in 2018 had been appointed to defuse large-scale protests spurred by burdensome austerity measures that were imposed to reduce Jordan’s large public debt. As longest serving prime minister, Razzaz succeeded, during his tenure, to push an amended version of the income tax law that had fueled the protests and successfully introduced institutional reforms to facilitate economic development, attract investments and propel economic growth.

He is also notorious for imposing one of the most draconian lockdowns in the region that helped, for a while, flatten the curve. Among the drastic measures introduced to combat the virus were prison terms for holding large gatherings. But mistakes were made and heavy-handed decisions over pandemic management and its economic fallout often appeared to be inconsistent, ultimately backfiring on Razzaz’s government.

In the end, though Razzaz tried to tackle the issues at hand, his term was overshadowed by the coronavirus. His handling of the crisis initially boosted his approval ratings but the current surge, with bad messaging, severely eroded his standing. These forces at work created discord within his cabinet leading it to crack down hard on dissent and produce unrest.

Meanwhile, Jordan’s main opposition party, the Muslim Brotherhood-affiliated Islamic Action Front, is gearing up to run in the coming election, making vocal demands for democratic reform and crackdown on corruption. They warned that any attempt to interfere in the elections would fuel social discontent and demanded, in an open letter to the new prime minister, an end to interference in their campaign by security services.

The Islamic Action Front boycotted previous elections until its comeback in 2016 winning 16 out of 130 parliamentary seats. Because Islamists have support in tribal areas favored by the gerrymandered electoral law, they could create reverberations even if they do not dominate the vote (Jordan almost banned the Brotherhood in recent years over demands to limit the King’s power.) The Court of Cassation recently dissolved the country’s Brotherhood branch because of failure to regularize its legal status.

Perhaps in anticipation of political turmoil to come, security services clamped down on Jordan’s Teacher Association, the 140,0000-member labor union that has been openly critical about the economy, detaining its leadership council and hundreds of protestors who challenged the decision. A “national defense law” was also used to restrict freedom of expression and association, proscribing the media from covering the issue. Teacher activists and dissidents were similarly arrested for social media criticism.

Jordan is now in a stable equilibrium of tension, a situation which neither seriously challenges the throne, nor does it offer confidence in the cabinet. Soaring incidences of brutality--whether gang violence or honor killings viewed with approval by large segments of society and taking precedence over formal justice—are examples of challenges to authority that are stressing the country at its seams. The coming vote however is unlikely to produce a legislature significantly different from the current one, providing the stability that has been the trademark of Jordanian political life even while casting doubt on its credibility.

Al Khasawneh is unlikely to be the panacea the King wants him to be: he will face many of the same trials as his predecessor with, as his first task, to oversee parliamentary elections and form a government at a time of considerable strain. However, the pandemic should serve as a warning sign for this new government that economic and social policies need to translate from short-term attempts to manage a health crisis that is creating pressure on the government into policies for addressing the root causes of Jordan crises. The stability and growth of this long-term U.S. ally, even in a changing Middle East, cannot be overstated.