Can Jordan’s autocratic regime democratize?


A recent change of government and looming parliamentary elections brings Jordan, a vital U.S. ally, back into policy discussions, say analysts Sean Yom and Wael Al-Khatib. And, inevitably, pundits will ask a familiar question about this diminutive kingdom abutting some of the region’s most fragile states: Despite breaking its past pledges to democratize, will the autocratic regime of Jordan survive? they ask in The Washington Post:

In the past, questions of Jordanian stability have merited polarizing responses. Some analysts warn that this oil-poor state stands on the brink of collapse, its struggling economy overrun with refugees and its angry population embracing religious extremism. Others, though, praise the kingdom as an oasis of stability, noting that the Hashemite monarchy commands popular legitimacy and that its citizens don’t really want democracy because of fears of Syrian-style conflict and chaos.

Neither of these schizophrenic assessments tells us what Jordanians are actually doing on the ground, highlighting the emergence of a new youth movement:

Shaghaf is organized to operate as a horizontal network rather than centralized hierarchy, with chapter groups across Jordan. Unlike other opposition groups, Shaghaf has only a small base in Amman; the real work, such as teaching events and public meetings, takes place in the far poorer 11 other governorates and three Bedouin districts. Including the capital, these 15 chapters operate autonomously and rely upon Facebook to share information, Twitter to broadcast news, and WhatsAapp for secure conversations. Each chapter, in turn, comprises independent committees tasked with tackling local problems and connecting residents to national politics.

Jordan faces enormous challenges, notes David Schenker, the Aufzien Fellow and director of the Program on Arab Politics at The Washington Institute.

In addition to the security threat, the Kingdom currently hosts over a million Syrian refugees, and has an unemployment rate of 15 percent, with youth joblessness approaching 40 percent. And to date, some 2,500 Jordanian nationals have joined the jihad in Syria, including three sons of sitting members of Parliament. It’s difficult to imagine that these bleak economic prospects — and the continued slaughter of Sunni Muslims in Syria — won’t contribute to radicalization among Jordan’s traditionally moderate population.

While all eyes in the U.S. are focused on the presidential election in November, the Kingdom of Jordan is set to hold parliamentary elections on September 20, 2016, notes Darren Cunningham, a Program Assistant in the International Republican Institute’s Middle East and North Africa Division:

Jordan’s King Abdullah II dissolved parliament shortly before the end of its four-year term in May, necessitating elections within four months. IRI recently completed a pre-election assessment mission with the National Democratic Institute for International Affairs (NDI), and both institutes are preparing for the impending election with long-term and short-term observer teams.

He outlines five things to watch during this election that will likely impact Jordan’s political future:

  1. Voter Turnout – For all intents and purposes, voter turnout for this election is a question of concern. When IRI conducted its latest national poll of Jordanian public opinion in April, only 38 percent of respondents said that they were likely to vote in the next elections, down from 47 percent in May 2015.  This is in line with a more recent August poll by Jordan’s Phenix Center for Economic and Informatics Studies, wherein only 38.9 percent of respondents stated intent to vote in the upcoming parliamentary elections.  When the Phenix Center asked those not intending to vote why they were abstaining, a plurality (30.5 percent) cited dissatisfaction with the previous parliament’s performance. Similarly, only five percent of IRI’s poll respondents felt the outgoing parliament had accomplished anything commendable. Although candidates have attempted to reach out to youth with social media, youth turnout is still expected to be low.
  2. The Impact of Jordan’s New Election LawRTWT

It has long been axiomatic that Jordan’s security apparatus is the best in the Arab world, Schenker writes for The American Interest:

While this dictum likely remains true, events of the past year demonstrate that security in Jordan cannot be taken for granted. Based on the current trajectory, it is all but certain that Jordan will be contending with intensified IS terrorist activity in the coming months and perhaps years.

In an increasingly chaotic region, U.S. interests depend greatly on the stability and prosperity of the Hashemite Kingdom. Washington must continue to work closely with Amman to improve the capabilities of the Kingdom’s security apparatus. At the end of the day, however, unlike Iraq, the security of the realm will depend solely on whether Jordan’s security services are up to the task. RTWT

IRI & NDI are core institutes of the National Endowment for Democracy.

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