After major gains in elections in Tunisia, Egypt and Morocco, Islamists are set to make little electoral impact in the first Jordanian polls since a pro-
democracy movement broke out here in 2011. The Muslim Brotherhood — which is Jordan’s strongest opposition force and runs its most organized political party — is boycotting the vote, mainly in protest of an elections law it claims will prevent a fair vote.
The boycott has cast doubt on the legitimacy of Jordan’s first elections since 2010, which officials tout as the centerpiece of the democratic reforms undertaken by the kingdom after nearly two years of simmering protests. But the boycott has also highlighted a key difference, and limitation, that Islamists in the region’s monarchies confront as they seek to capitalize on the rise of political Islam.
Unlike the clean slates enjoyed by Islamists in post-revolution Tunisia, Egypt and Libya — where former autocrats had been overthrown — Jordan’s Brotherhood is competing with the entrenched and still relatively popular Hashemite monarchy. King Abdullah II’s regime has so far proved resilient even in the face of widespread anger over rising prices, and analysts say the Brotherhood, which has unsuccessfully pushed for faster democratic reforms, concluded that it had little to gain by running.
But it also has little desire to pursue more revolutionary tactics. For decades, the Jordanian Brotherhood has had a symbiotic if at times tenuous relationship with the monarchy, which long provided the movement a haven even as it was persecuted elsewhere across the Arab world.
“You simply cannot compare Jordan with Tunisia or Egypt. Here the movement has had a working relationship with the regime for decades while members were imprisoned abroad,” said Mohammed Abu Rumman, a Jordanian columnist and an expert in Islamist movements.
But Abu Rumman said that relationship has “fallen apart” in recent months. And now Islamists are mobilizing to discourage Jordanians from taking part in the electoral process.
“While people across the Arab world are choosing their governments for the very first time, decision-makers in Jordan are continuing to play the same old games,” said Zaki Bani Rsheid, deputy head of the Jordanian Brotherhood.
At the center of the dispute is the country’s controversial elections law, which critics say relies on a convoluted voting system and gerrymandering to deliver most parliamentary seats to regime loyalists and too few to political parties. Jordanian officials, who have championed a more gradual approach to reforms, acknowledge that the system is imperfect. But they argue that reserving more seats for parties would unfairly favor the Brotherhood, because smaller parties have not had sufficient time to develop.
The Brotherhood says it also aims to pressure Abdullah to relinquish his authority to appoint governments, the core demand of Jordan’s two-year-old protest movement, which also includes liberals and some tribal leaders.
“We have a constitutional monarchy on paper and an absolute monarchy on the ground,” said Hamzeh Mansour, secretary general of the Islamic Action Front, the Jordanian Brotherhood’s political arm.
With Islamists off the ballot, the electoral field is instead dominated by independent pro-regime candidates whose dominance of successive rubber-stamp parliaments has eroded public confidence in Jordan’s political system.
Tensions between the monarchy and the Islamist movement peaked in the spring of 2012, when the Brotherhood was invited along with other political factions into a dialogue with the government over a new elections law. Using its position as Jordan’s largest political party as leverage, the Brotherhood threatened to sit out elections unless the elections law was overhauled and the constitution changed to ensure elected governments. That did not happen.
“The Brotherhood thought that, like elsewhere in the Arab world, they were on the rise, had the upper hand and could dictate the terms,” said Musa Shteiwi, director of the University of Jordan Center for Strategic Studies. “They had overplayed their hand.”
The government insists that it welcomes the Islamists’ participation in the polls.
“If the Islamists truly want to bring about reform and change the electoral law, the door is wide open for them to do it under the dome of Parliament,” government spokesman Samih Maaytah said.
But relations remain combative.
Last week, Prime Minister Abdullah Ensour accused Islamists of attempting to “usurp the king’s powers” and plotting to “push the right of a minority onto the majority,” while Islamists claimed that authorities are turning a blind eye to rampant electoral fraud.
Both sides stand much to lose in the election, analysts say.
About 70 percent of Jordan’s 3 million eligible voters have registered. A turnout even close to that high would sound a ringing endorsement for the status quo and a rejection of the Brotherhood’s tactics. On Wednesday, Abdullah laid out a blueprint for the incoming parliament that would form the next government — which, if it happened, would leave Islamists on the outside as the country moved toward its first ever elected government.
On the other hand, because it is Jordan’s strongest political party, the Brotherhood’s boycott is likely, at least in the short term, to cement its status as the only viable alternative to the increasingly embattled Jordanian regime, which is grappling with the spillover of violence in next-door Syria and a $1.8 billion budget deficit. A decision to lift fuel subsidies in November sparked two weeks of deadly nationwide riots, and the country remains under pressure from the International Monetary Fund to slash about $2 billion in electricity subsidies within the next year.
For now, however, many politicians and voters express apathy about elections that were billed as transformative but seem likely to produce yet another loyalist parliament.
“Across the Arab world, Islamists have formed governments and drafted constitutions,” said Mohammed al-Haj, head of the Islamic Centrist Party and a candidate. “Here in Jordan, it feels we are like an endangered species.”
On Friday, only a few thousand people turned out for what the Brotherhood promoted as a mass anti-elections rally in Amman.
“It’s hard to get excited over these elections when both sides know it is a lost cause,” said Ahmed Khasawneh, a self-described independent activist. “Most of Jordan is more worried about what will come after elections day.”