Jordan’s opposition wagers on election boycott

Jordanian man at Jan. 18 protest in Amman. (omaralkalouti.com/©Omar Alkalouti)

Jordanian man at Jan. 18 protest in Amman. (omaralkalouti.com/©Omar Alkalouti)

It’s the day before a parliamentary election — the only kind of national election Jordan has — but Wednesday won’t see political parties dueling it out for leadership. Other than the candidates themselves and the narrow constituencies that support them, few people seem to care who gets elected. Instead, the political opposition and the regime are locked in a tense face-off over whether the polls are valid at all.

Both sides have staked a large slice of their credibility on the contest, and someone is going to lose. But there are signs that Jordan’s Islamist-led opposition may have overplayed its hand.

King Abdullah II has made this election the centerpiece of his program of gradual reform; a strong turnout will be taken as a vindication of that program, evidence that Jordanians value stability and security more than rapid political liberalization. The opposition has announced a boycott, saying the reforms are only cosmetic; they will use a poor showing on election day as proof that the people of this small kingdom want more democracy than the current system offers.

This fight has been simmering for months — maybe years, all the way back to January of 2011, when Ben Ali fell in Tunisia and Mubarak in Egypt, and Jordanians took to the streets en masse to demand a better political system. In Jordan, the king was smarter than those two early casualties: He saw he had to get out in front. So he dismissed his appointed prime minister, and called for a national committee to reform the system. Yet another prime minister got the sack. Protests continued into 2012, and the third royally appointed PM quit in frustration. But over the course of two years, numerous changes were made to laws governing elections, political parties and the media, and a third of the articles in the constitution were rewritten.

The state claimed the changes were democratization; the opposition called them window-dressing, and said it would boycott any election held under the new laws. The stalemate dragged on. In October 2012, opposition groups organized a mass rally at a downtown mosque, and there were rumors of impending violence. The day before the rally, the king dissolved parliament and called for early elections on January 23, under the new laws.

The opposition was dealt a blow last Friday, when what was meant to be a mass rally against the election drew only a nominal crowd. Its chosen location was Firas Circle in Amman’s Jabal Hussein neighborhood — the same place where, two months ago, angry young men shouting for the downfall of the king were facing off against riot police armed with night sticks and tear gas. But that was when the country was being rocked by the backlash against a government decision to raise gas prices in order to secure an IMF loan. An organized opposition protest is an entirely different affair — not an outburst of anger, but a means of political messaging, of bringing together the base and demonstrating strength to opponents.

“Messages are very important,” said Ghaith al-Qudah, chairman of the youth wing of Jordan’s Islamic Action Front. “We are making this rally five days before election day, which is a very strong message to the regime of Jordan, to the government, that we are against this election. We are not agreeing with the election law, we are against the election law; we would like to have a better political life in Jordan. This is our message, to the king himself.”

On Friday, families packed the circle to listen to speeches by opposition heavyweights, mostly from the Islamist movement. Activists in fluorescent yellow visibility vests passed out water and fliers. In the front, the more energetic protesters chanted for reform, waving yellow cards like those used in soccer to warn a player for bad behavior. As evening fell, young men danced, and hardier protesters braved the chill to watch satirical political programs on a giant screen organizers set up. Uniformed police maintained a discreet security cordon around the area but did not interfere.

Yet even at its height, around noonday prayer, the rally drew only about 2,000 people.

Mass public prayers during protest at Faras Circle in Amman, Jordan, on Jan. 18. (omaralkalouti.com/©Omar Alkalouti)

Mass public prayers during protest at Faras Circle in Amman, Jordan, on Jan. 18. (omaralkalouti.com/©Omar Alkalouti)

For a coalition that included the Islamists along with dozens of other political movements, 2,000 isn’t much. The Islamic Action Front is the country’s only large political party, and it has been firmly at the center of Jordan’s two-year protest movement precisely because of its ability to mobilize thousands, even tens of thousands of people. The mass rally in early October, organized by a similar Islamist-led coalition, drew roughly 15,000 people. And on November 30, as the country was recovering from the gas-price fiasco, a coalition of Islamists and nationalists brought out 5,000 or so to Firas Circle.

When I reported on the gas-price riots in November, I raised the question of whether the Islamic movement would pay a political price for the unrest: It had let itself be portrayed as encouraging violence, potentially alienating a substantial swathe of Jordan’s security-conscious public. The strong turnout at the November 30 rally seemed to indicate that the Islamists were still strong, but this weekend could suggest a longer-term problem. A large proportion of the people who did show up on Friday did not seem to be Islamists at all, but members of non-party-affiliated protest movements from Jordan’s outlying towns, who had come in on buses for the occasion.

Organizers I spoke with seemed as bewildered as anyone by the poor turnout. They offered a variety of explanations, ranging from poor planning on the part of the Islamic Action Front to the recent bout of cold weather. (The preceding week saw severe winter storms, but Friday was beautiful and sunny.) A few said they believed people had been intimidated by the security services into staying home — but there were no signs of police intimidation at the event, and most activists did not cite that as a problem.

The most compelling theory was offered by Mothanna Gharaibeh, an independent leftist organizer I met during the November unrest. His argument was that the opposition had simply picked the wrong issue to take a stand on.

“They’re not reading the street,” he said. The things that power mass protest are immediate and physical, things that speak to the body and the heart as much as the head. Economic woes are strong motivators; picking a fight over a purely political issue like the elections law ended up playing to the opposition’s weaknesses more than its strengths.

It’s a worrisome prospect for a protest movement that is dedicated to political change, but Gharaibeh’s reading sits fairly well with what little we know about Jordanian public opinion. In large surveys, for example, economic complaints are always ranked substantially above political ones. That is not to say that Jordan’s troubles are purely economic — far from it. Many, perhaps most Jordanians, blame their poor economic situation on state cronyism, theft and mismanagement, and they see the neoliberal economic policies Jordan has embraced in the past decade as simply a way for a wealthy elite to enrich themselves at the expense of the nation.

In a large poll done by the International Republican Institute (IRI) in July, 57 percent of respondents listed “fighting corruption” as the most important reform the country could make; only 29 percent said economic reform, and 12 percent political reform. Throughout two years of protests, fighting corruption has been the most substantial link that united opposition groups that often had very different political agendas. In the battle over elections, however, organizers have sidelined economic concerns to frustration with Jordan’s election law. For the opposition’s broader base, that may be a bridge too far.

The issues are definitely connected. Jordan’s election system has come under criticism both within the country (including from state-backed reform committees) and from outside observers and analysts. Some of this has been because of reports of fraud and vote-buying in individual elections, but the bigger problem, most critics say, is that the election process itself is rigged to produce tame parliaments. Districts are gerrymandered to increase the power of some social groups and diminish that of others; a vote in a rural district may be worth four to six times as much as a vote in the capital. And the election law, which gives citizens one vote in a multi-seat constituency, makes it very difficult for political parties to get elected; historically, most of the country’s PMs have been “independents” who represent the interest of a particular tribe or family.

The parliaments produced under this system are widely unpopular. Conventional wisdom is that the PMs are out for themselves, uninterested in national issues and unqualified to deal with them. There’s a strong case to be made that parliaments are ineffective because of the system used to create them, and for the core of the opposition, like the protesters who came out on Friday, making that case is second nature.

“Most people in Jordan consider the ‘one vote’ system to be an extremely backward one, because it fragments society and creates hatred between people,” said one demonstrator, a teacher from the southern town of Tafileh. He asked that his name not be used. “We want the downfall of this backward election law, and to fight [corruption] by coming up with a new, modern and civilized law that would serve the society as a whole. This will enable us to hold corrupt people accountable.”

A man at the Jan. 18 protest in Amman, Jordan, holds a sign depicting the map of Jordan being squeezed. (omaralkalouti.com/©Omar Alkalouti)

A man at the Jan. 18 protest in Amman, Jordan, holds a sign depicting the map of Jordan being squeezed. (omaralkalouti.com/©Omar Alkalouti)

But the broader public may be more likely to blame the individuals than the system that put them in power. According to IRI’s poll, parliamentarians appear to be the least popular figures in the country — but why? Eighty-four percent of respondents said there was either a “great deal” or a “fair amount” of corruption in parliament. When asked about the new elections law, 48 percent of respondents said they were not even aware of its content. When asked what they would do if elections were held immediately, 27 percent said they would not participate; 57 percent said they would. When the ones who would not vote were asked why, most people said there were no worthwhile candidates, or that parliament was useless. Only six percent cited the law as a reason.

A local poll, done by Jordan University’s Center for Strategic Studies in September, got a concurring statistic: 75 percent of respondents said the right way to achieve political reform was through elections, not street protests.

That number may say more about Jordanians’ preference for security than anything else, but also it suggests that, overall, the workings of democracy are still respected — even by voters who may stay home because they don’t think there’s anyone worth voting for. By focusing their efforts on the elections process, Jordan’s opposition leaders may have inadvertently played their weakest card against the state’s strongest one.

On the other hand, these numbers also suggest that when Jordan’s next unpopular parliament is elected, the opposition may be able to gain back some ground by highlighting its similarities to previous ones. And many in the opposition remain confident that turnout on election day will be low, even if their rally was not a success; on Wednesday, apathy and a general discontent with politics will be on their side.

A solid victory for either side could change the whole trajectory of Jordanian politics — though the most likely outcome is a middle case, from which both sides will at least attempt to claim victory. After that, both the state and the opposition may try to reconsider their tactics. It seems unlikely that an Islamist-led opposition will give up on the mass rally strategy — though they are aware of a need to get their message out more clearly, they are still focusing on bringing the people to them, describing their rallies as opportunities to raise political awareness among their constituency. The satirical television program they showed on Friday was an example of such an educational effort, though it ended up playing mostly to the choir.

Gharaibeh says the opposite needs to happen: that a political opposition can’t move people on its own issues, but has to move itself on the problems that concern the street. He envisions a different kind of protest movement, focused more on building local community institutions and on direct-action tactics. He cites an example from September of last year: The first time the government wanted to raise gas prices, Amman taxi drivers went on strike, and the state quickly backed down. (The prices were raised in November, regardless.) An opposition movement that based itself on these kinds of actions would be harder to ignore — though it could also invite more backlash.

Here, too, the elections will likely be a deciding factor. If the current tactics pay off for the opposition at the polls, little is likely to change. If they do not, new ones will be tried. The question is whether they will bear fruit before the opposition again finds itself essentially watching from the sidelines while the state dominates the reform agenda.

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