Jordan's parliamentary elections and the Islamist boycott

Arabist reader André Bank sent me the following analysis of Jordan's recent parliamentary elections and the decision of the Islamic Action Front (a Muslim Brotherhood affiliated party) to boycott. I reproduce here for the benefit of others. His views, of course, are his own — but they certainly have shed some light for me on a subject I don't know much about.

Jordan’s parliamentary elections and the Islamist boycott 

By André Bank

3 January 2011

André Bank is a research fellow at the GIGA Institute of Middle East Studies in Hamburg, Germany. His main areas of expertise are regional conflict, foreign and domestic politics in the Middle East, with a focus on Jordan, Syria and Palestine.

Introduction

On November 9, Jordan held its sixth parliamentary elections after the partial political opening of the authoritarian regime in 1989. In the recent elections, the Muslim Brotherhood (MB) and the Islamic Action Front (IAF) as its affiliated party successfully boycotted, leading to an elected Lower House without any parliamentarians from the traditionally largest and only really relevant political party in Jordan. The government’s maintenance of the highly controversial “one-man, one vote” electoral system of 1993, which despite some cosmetic changes in May 2010 still highly discriminates against urban areas and clearly favours the rural, tribally dominated parts of Jordan, has been the obvious reason behind the Islamists’ decision not to participate in this year’s “election game”, thereby pushing through the second electoral boycott since the first one in 1997.  

In order to adequately understand the Islamists’ current electoral boycott, I hold that we should look beyond the specifics and minimal changes of the maintained “sawt wahid” electoral law and locate the boycott in its wider political and also historical context. This bigger picture of the politics of Islamists and elections in Jordan, I would argue, can be adequately grasped along three axes – or analytical lenses: First, the relationship between the MB/IAF and the Hashemite government. Second, the connections between Islamist politics in Jordan and the wider Arab region and in particular the Palestinian arena. And thirdly, internal politics and the dynamics within the MB/IAF itself, which – again – are also in various ways interlinked with the other two dimensions. 

In the following, I want to use these three lenses to illustrate some key dynamics of the politics of Islamists and elections in Jordan. Starting out with a historical perspective, I intend to move to the present situation in order to end with some potential future implications of the Islamists’ recent boycott decision.

Hashemites and Islamists: From cooperation to confrontation

From the axes of government-opposition relations and with a longer-term view, the relationship of the Jordanian Islamists and the Hashemite government can be described as a transformation from cooperation to confrontation. By this, I do not want to insinuate that the government-Islamist relation in Jordan is simply a linear development of gradual decline and growing enmity, far from it. There are of course complex ups and downs. Nevertheless, the overall trend over the past two decades has been one of more confrontation in the sense of increased regime repression, less cooptation and probably also less government-Islamist coordination. (The latter could also be seen in the very unsuccessful and actually half-hearted attempts by the Rifa’i government to lure the MB/IAF into participating in the 2010 elections.) 

The Hashemite-Islamist estrangement is related – perhaps paradoxically – to the relative political strength and broad social support of the Islamists up until the political liberalization in 1989. During the period of martial law from 1957 to 1989, the Islamists were in an almost symbiotic relationship with the Hashemite government under King Hussein. They were allowed to work exclusively in the Palestinian refugee camps after the so-called Black September 1970 and had a near-hegemony in the fields of religious politics and education. And their social support network as represented in the Islamic Center Charity Society (ICCS), the largest Non-Governmental Organizations (NGOs) outside the welfare Royally Organized NGOs, already played an important role in serving the Islamists’ main constituency, the urban (lower) middle classes, especially in Amman and Zarqa, many of which were also of Palestinian descent.1 

This social support base allowed the MB an impressive showing in the first parliamentary elections in 1989, when 22 of the 80 parliamentarians were direct MB members and a dozen more were affiliated independents. Alarmed of a potential gradual take-over of the Islamists, King Hussein already started to initiate a policy of electoral de-liberalization, namely in the form of the development of the controversial “one-man, one-vote” electoral law, which should lead to a weaker showing of 16 MB/IAF candidates in the 1993 elections. In this context, the regional Arab and especially Palestinian dimension is paramount. 

Jordanian Islamists, Hamas and the (former) Peace Process

The second lens is the regional Arab and in particular Palestinian dimension.2 This dimension makes the Jordanian case of Islamist politics and elections peculiar. Without going into details about the multiple personal and organizational linkages between the Jordanian MB and the Palestinian Hamas, it is fair to say that there’s a very strong Palestinian connection, which also manifests itself in the “anti-normalization movement” in Jordan. The latter is dominated by the professional associations, mostly of the engineers, doctors, pharmacists etc., which – again, and up until now – is controlled by the MB/IAF.

In many ways, the Islamists’ first boycott decision in Jordan in the parliamentary elections of 1997 is also related to the “Palestine dimension”, namely the government’s continued political crackdown against the Islamist opposition in the course of the signing of the peace treaty with Israel in 1994. And Jordan’s Western donors pretty much turned a blind eye on the continuation of the “sawt wahid” electoral law. Being excluded from the patronage and partial influence that stems from participation in parliament in Jordan, the Islamists decided to run again – albeit with a very limited number of candidates – in the postponed 2003 elections. Then, and under the shadow of the second Palestinian intifada and the Iraq war, they gained 17 from the extended 110 seats. 

The next parliamentary elections, the ones in 2007, took place in a regional-domestic context of massive intimidation against the Islamists – and the background here was less the Islamist terrorist attacks in Jordan on 9 November 2005 (actually, the current date was chosen to “celebrate” – well, instrumentalize – the fifth anniversary) but much more the electoral sweep of Hamas in the Occupied Palestinian Territories in January 2006. The ensuing repression, which lead among others to the closure of the ICCS in July 2006 (until today not opened yet) and the arrest of IAF parliamentarians in August 2006, brought about a massive fragmentation of the MB/IAF, leading to internal divisions along “hawkish” and “dovish” trends.  

Internal Politics of the Muslim Brotherhood and the IAF

The decision to participate in 2007 after the massive government crackdown since 2006 lead to a rising influence of more “confrontational” and “pro-Hamas” representatives, who gradually took over important positions in both the movement and the party by 2009. But, as Muhammad Abu Rumman underlines, the most recent decision to boycott came behind an initiative by so-called doves – namely to put the issue of “electoral reform” centre-stage and to call for an institutionalization in Jordan of a “real constitutional monarchy”.3 When this suggestion became obvious, the government was even more hesitant to initiate anything more than some smaller changes in terms of the women’s quota, four additional seats for the northern cities of Amman, Zarqa and Irbid as well as the introduction virtual sub-districts. The final boycott decision of the MB/IAF was then announced in July 2010. i.e. fourth months before the scheduled election date and two months after the declaration of the temporary election law in May. Before, the movement/party had displayed its traditional form of internal consultation and democratic procedures; while the movement/party leadership was rather divided about the potential benefits of a participation in the elections, the social base clearly voted in favour of the boycott. And the policy of communicating the boycott and of keeping the vast majority of supporters and delegates testifies to the coherence and hierarchical implementation of political decision taken by the movement/party. 

Future perspectives: Back to 1997?

Is the Islamists’ electoral boycott in the recent parliamentary elections an expression of its political weakness in the context of an overwhelming Hashemite government? Not necessarily. The decision to consult with the rank-and-file of the movement/party as well as its members and in particular the clear maintenance of the boycott over a period of four months under pressure from the government and a media campaign to participate shows the level of relative coherence and hierarchy, which currently seems to have returned to the MB/IAF after the period of fragmentation and internal turbulences following the government crackdown since 2006. 

And will the boycott lead to a period of soul-searching within the movement/party reminiscent of the phase after the first electoral boycott some 13 years ago? In other words: Will Jordan move back to 1997? Most likely not. With the more hawkish trends controlling important positions in both the MB and the IAF, the likelihood of internal disputes might go down, especially in comparison to the last years. And if the movement manages to keep its social bases and influence in the professional associations, in which they won again recently, as well as partly in the university councils, Jordan’s Islamists will head towards a more “confrontational” position against the government and, by extension, the lame parliament. This is especially so if the deadlock on negotiations between the Israeli government and the Palestinian Fatah in the West Bank persists and if Hamas continues to be sidelined and boycotted in the Gaza Strip. Only if the “one-man, one vote” electoral law will be essentially abolished and replaced by a more balanced system, will the MB/IAF return to run in parliamentary elections again. 

Endnotes:  

1 Cf. Janine A. Clark (2010), “Questioning Power, Mobilization, and Strategies of the Islamist Opposition. How Strong Is the Muslim Brotherhood in Jordan?”, in: Holger Albrecht (ed.): Contentious Politics in the Middle East. Political Opposition under Authoritarianism, Gainesville: University Press of Florida, pp. 117-137. 

2 For a systematic analysis of interplay between Arab regional and Jordanian domestic politics and the importance of the ‘Palestine dimension’ cf. André Bank / Morten Valbjørn (2010), “Bringing the Arab Regional Level Back in …- Jordan in the New Arab Cold War”, in: Middle East Critique, 19, 3, pp. 303-319.

3 Cf. Muhammad Abu Rumman (2010), “Jordan’s Parliamentary Elections and the Islamist Boycott”, in: Arab Reform Bulletin, 20 October.