This past week, the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan held a general election to select a new parliament, four months after King Abdullah II dissolved the previous government by royal decree. The elections themselves were largely unremarkable. Turnout was underwhelming, with only 37% of registered voters casting ballots. The political wing of the Muslim Brotherhood, participating in its first elections since 2007, failed to meet its target number of seats. This was despite the overturn of the electoral system instituted in 1989 to limit the Brotherhood’s influence. Overall, the make-up of the new parliament remains similar to those of the previous two decades, leading analysts to predict that “no radical changes” will occur.
What is remarkable in these elections is the sense of apathy by Jordanians about the latest iteration of the parliament and lack of faith that anything positive will come of it. 87% of those surveyed in June thought that the previous parliament did nothing of note. The massive drop from an already meager 56% turnout in 2013 indicates the widely held belief that its successor will be equally ineffectual. This apathy is a logical reaction to the failure of repeated parliaments to address the same recurring issues of economic hardship and political corruption that have plagued the kingdom for years. As with all of Jordan’s ills, tribal politics remain the go-to scapegoat for explaining the incompetence of the elected parliament. And while family and tribal loyalties do play a role, the major limits on Jordan’s stuttering and unconvincing democratic process have their origins elsewhere.
There is a carefully constructed image of Jordan’s King Abdullah II prominently disseminated in the west. Perhaps nowhere is this more clearly espoused than Jeffery Goldberg’s 2013 feature on the king. Contrasting the “Modern King” with tribal leaders, Islamists Mohammad Morsi of Egypt and Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey, and the “Palestinian-dominated Muslim Brotherhood,” Goldberg paints the picture of a western-educated and US-friendly moderate who wants to drag his antiquated subjects into the 21st century. This image is reinforced by the king’s periodic TV appearances and interviews. As Goldberg tells it, the king wants to turn his country into a western-style constitutional monarchy where democracy and equality are widely held values. Goldberg argues, however, that “meritocracy and democratic pluralism are not ideas that his country is prepared to accept.”
King Abdullah II on The Daily Show [Comedy Central]
The problem with this narrative is that it obscures the historic and contemporary role the Hashemite monarchy has played in delegitimizing the very values of democracy and pluralism it claims to promote. Pluralistic multi-party democracy is far from foreign to the country. In 1952, a liberal democratic constitution was enacted by the current king’s grandfather, Talal, and led to the proliferation of robust political parties, women’s suffrage, and the largely free and fair election of the most representative parliament the country has seen before or since. Talal’s successor, King Hussein, feared that the nationalist, anti-imperial government would come to oppose the monarchy itself. In 1957, with support of the US Embassy, the young king launched a palace coup in which he suspended the constitution, instituted martial law, eliminated women’s suffrage, banned political parties and initiated decades of political repression.
Since 1957, numerous constitutional amendments have been enacted that allow the monarch to appoint and dismiss prime ministers, cabinets, and senators, dissolve the government, call for and postpone elections, and enact and promulgate laws. The most recent amendments, which were approved earlier this year, grant the king the power to directly appoint a number of high-level positions without a nomination or approval process. According to critics, these new amendments reverse concessions made during the Arab Spring and leave the king resembling an absolute monarch.
At the same time, there still exists significant political repression in the country. The Muslim Brotherhood remains banned and its headquarters were closed in April. Speech is heavily curtailed. Seven major limits of speech exist including bans on “undermining the regime” and “Lèse-majesté.” Journalists and writers have been arrested for violating these rules. This week, writer Nahed Hattar, on trial for sharing a cartoon deemed religiously offensive, was assassinated. In addition, last year Human Rights Watch reported on the use of vague laws to bring charges of terrorism against journalists critiquing the regime.
This concentration of political power in the hands of the king and suppression of dissent goes hand in hand with a project of delegitimizing potential opponents. José Martínez demonstrates in a recent paper how the palace positions the monarchy as the “source of democratic reforms” and undermines the opposition as “incapable, dangerous or immature.” In doing so, potential alternatives to the current regime are discredited or seen as challenges to the stability of Jordan.
Against this historical and constitutional context, the lack of faith by Jordanians in their democratic process is only logical. After all, the body they elect is essentially powerless as political risk analyst Kirk Sowell told Al Jazeera: “It cannot choose the government, cannot originate legislation, and although it can amend it, this power is meaningless since the senate can amend its amendments, and the king can also veto.” And since the government and the senate are appointed by the king, the real power stems from a single source.
Despite the king’s global image as a reformer and modernizer helping his country to accept the values of pluralism and democracy, his policies and his office have a long history of opposing attempts at liberal pluralism necessary for representative democracy. These values are hardly foreign to the country, as the liberal democratic experiment of the 1950s demonstrates, but have been undermined by the monarchy in order to defend its position and interests. The Hashemite monarchy and King Abdullah II can play a role in building a more representative and popular system of government6. However, as long as the king continues to centralize his power, dictate policy and discredit his opponents, any sort of democratic process in Jordan will remain theatrical at best.