What is at stake in Jordan?
An economic crisis threatens the political stability of Jordan in the wake of a legislative election with the designation of seasoned diplomat and court loyalist Bisher Khasawneh to form a new government. This comes after the disbanding of parliament and moving a number of former security officials to the Senate. The election will likely yield little surprises and deliver more of the same weak parliament with rising national tensions.
With a rising coronavirus toll and mismanagement, voter apathy is high as most citizens plan to boycott the coming election. The economic decline is marked by unemployment over 20 percent, and poverty is exacerbated by the pandemic. King Abdullah showed fears of a health system collapse if the disease spreads thanks to limited intensive care units and resources. He wants a fresh start after the election to ease disenchantment over the financial woes and restrictions under the strict lockdown.
Outgoing premier Omar Razzaz was selected two years ago to defuse the protests sparked by severe austerity measures meant to reduce the public debt of Jordan. As the longest serving prime minister, Razzaz had success with an amended version of the income tax law that fueled the protests as he has introduced institutional reforms to facilitate business development, attract financial investment, and drive economic growth.
He is also notorious for a draconian lockdown that flattened the curve for some time. Such drastic measures introduced to combat the coronavirus included prison terms for large gatherings. However, mistakes were made and those decisions in the pandemic response and economic fallout often appeared to be inconsistent. While Razzaz had tried to tackle the issues at hand, his term was overtaken by the coronavirus. His handling of the crisis raised his approval ratings at first, however, the current wave has severely eroded his standing. These forces at work created discord for his cabinet, leading it to launch attacks on dissent and foment unrest.
Members of the main opposition party, known as the Islamic Action Front with ties to the Muslim Brotherhood, are preparing to run for the election, making demands for democratic reforms and a crack down on corruption. They warned that any attempt to meddle in the election would bring more social discontent and sought to end interference in their campaign by the security services in their letter to the new prime minister.
The Islamic Action Front boycotted past elections until 2016 when it won more than a dozen seats in parliament. Because Islamists have support in the tribal areas favored by electoral law, they could create reverberations even if they do not dominate the votes. Jordan nearly banned the Muslim Brotherhood over recent years over its demands to limit the power of the throne. The Court of Cassation dissolved the Muslim Brotherhood branch of Jordan because of failure to normalize its legal status.
Perhaps in anticipation of political turmoil, the security services aimed at the Jordanian Teachers Association, a labor union with 140,000 members that has been critical about the economic crisis, and detained the leaders and civilians who decried the decision. A defense law was used to restrict freedoms and stop reporters from covering the news. Education activists and dissidents were arrested for criticism on social media.
Jordan sits in a situation which neither seriously challenges the throne nor offers confidence for the cabinet. Soaring incidences of brutality, whether from gang violence or honor killings met with approval by large swaths of society, are cases of authority challenges which are tearing the country at its seams. But the election is unlikely to produce a legislature significantly different from the current one, providing the trademark stability seen with the government even while casting doubt on its credibility.
Khasawneh will unlikely be the panacea which the throne wants him to be. He will face many of the same trials and must form a political coalition at a time of considerable strain. The pandemic must serve as a warning for the new government that economic policies should translate from attempts to manage a health crisis into social policies intended to tackle many causes of the national problems. The stability of this important ally for the United States, even in a shifting Middle East, cannot be overstated.
Patricia Karam is regional director for the Middle East at the International Republican Institute, a nonprofit organization that promotes democracy.