King Abdullah’s surprising decision to disband the Jordanian parliament on November 23, 2009—only two years after its election—raises a number of questions regarding upcoming municipal and parliamentary elections, as well as the political environment in Jordan more generally. What are the political problems that led to this decision? What is the position of the Muslim Brotherhood and other political parties? What kinds of political alliances are possible?
Although parliamentary and municipal elections are routinely held in Jordan, the country cannot be considered a democracy. Parliament is dominated by independents and governments are formed and dismissed without reference to it. Despite the fact that Jordan’s constitution mandates holding parliamentary elections within four months of dissolving parliament, constitutional amendments allow postponement of up to two years. Governments use the absence of parliament to issue temporary laws, which often become permanent.
Regarding why this parliament was dissolved, it is important to recall that the 2007 elections were held under domestic and international conditions that differ from the present ones. Domestically, there was a great deal of infighting among three main figures in Jordanian politics: Prime Minister Ma’ruf al-Bakhit, Intelligence Chief Muhammad al-Dhahabi, and Royal Court Chief Bassem Awadallah. The resulting political map reflected their rivalry, and although all three men subsequently left the political scene, parliament remained a relic of that era. The government of Prime Minister Nader al-Dhahabi, who followed al-Bakhit, had a difficult relationship with parliament and could not pass the laws it deemed necessary for economic reform.
On the international level, Republicans are no longer in control of the White House and the anti-terrorism agenda that had a tremendous impact on politics in Jordan and other countries has lost its clout. The Obama administration seems to be concerned about reform in Jordan, and a delegation from the U.S. State Department is expected to visit to follow up. The issues in question include U.S. assistance for educational reform, social security, and refugees. In addition, there is talk of a U.S. demand for greater assimilation of citizens of Palestinian origin in Jordanian politics, public life, and government.
Once King Abdullah dissolved the parliament, the government was charged with preparing for the new municipal and parliamentary elections within four months, as specified by the Jordanian constitution, but the government has already postponed them until late 2010. Parliamentary and local elections will be held on different systems, with municipal bodies chosen for each of Jordan’s twelve governorates. The exact system for local elections remains unclear, awaiting a new decentralization law. Further details, such as the number of seats for each governorate and whether all seats will be elected or whether some will be appointed, are not clear yet.
The parliamentary election law remains a major problem in Jordanian politics. After the dissolution of parliament (and all but two municipal councils) in 1993, the government issued a temporary electoral law that remains in place today. The law is intended to prevent the formation of alliances and political parties capable of forming a parliamentary majority. Thus governments have no party affiliation, and there is never a single party or a bloc of allied parties that commands a parliamentary majority.
The possibility of a parliamentary majority is controversial in Jordan for two reasons. The first is the concern that the Islamist movement would win a majority; the Islamic Action Front (IAF, affiliated to the Muslim Brotherhood) is the only political party capable of winning a significant number of seats in parliament. The second issue is the participation of Jordanians of Palestinian origin in parliament and in political life more broadly.
Surprisingly, opposition political groups including the Islamist movement welcomed the decision to dissolve parliament. In fact, the Muslim Brotherhood had called for the dissolution of parliament and new elections just days before the decision was announced.
While Islamists cannot yet be sure what will happen, there are changes to the electoral law rumored that might favor their interests. It is likely that the number of seats in parliament will be reduced from 110 to 80, and the quota for women will increase to at least one seat per governorate (awarded to the woman with greatest number of votes). There is also talk of increasing the share of seats for parliamentarians from Palestinian origin to 30 out of 80 seats (compared to 15-23 seats in the past), which might benefit the Islamists, who enjoy support in the Palestinian community.
The IAF will most likely participate in the elections, and it is expected to attempt to win 15-20 seats. As in all previous elections, the movement will deliberately calibrate the number of its candidates to ensure that it does not win a parliamentary majority.
It is too early to know what changes will be made to the electoral law, however, as the new government headed by Samir al-Rifa`i has not made it a priority. Instead, as after previous parliamentary dissolutions, the government rushed to pass temporary laws—in this case on taxes and social security--aimed at reshaping political and economic life. This is a common tactic, as evidenced by the passing of more than 200 temporary laws while parliament was dissolved in 2001. Some of those laws, which resulted in controversial changes in the nature of investment and the economy, were later approved by parliament but others were never put to a parliamentary vote.
In the end, the most important outcome of disbanding the parliament might be increased political participation by Jordanian citizens of Palestinian origin and by the Islamist movement, which generally represents them. Meanwhile, the Jordanian government will use the absence of parliament to embark on a series of social and economic reforms to meet the goals of IMF and WTO programs.
Ibrahim Gharaibeh is a Jordanian journalist living in Doha. Dina Shehata translated this article from Arabic.