Obama must push – not just praise – Jordan's efforts at democratic reform
Ahead of his trip to Israel, the West Bank, and Jordan, President Obama should remember: The only way for the US to maintain Jordan as a stable ally in the long term is to prod King Abdullah toward more meaningful reform that meets the rising expectations of Jordan’s citizens.
Jordan’s January 2013 parliamentary elections did little to change the political status quo in this constitutional monarchy, but they have been billed as the centerpiece of important reforms underway in the kingdom. In the summer of 2011, King Abdullah II beamed that the “Arab Spring actually gave me, in a way, the opportunity that I’ve been looking for the past 11 years” to rally reform in the country. But Jordan’s electoral reforms have been only minor technical and administrative improvements to the voting process that avoid the fundamental need for the monarchy to share power.Skip to next paragraph
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American trumpeting of these modest steps – while failing to call for further progress – only exacerbates the problem by reinforcing the king’s false impression that such reforms are sufficient.
As part of a recent electoral observation trip to Jordan with the National Democratic Institute, I was able to speak with a diverse group of stakeholders about their expectations and perceptions of the electoral process. The most common refrain from candidates and voters was a variation of: “We look forward to seeing you again in 2014 or 2015. We know this parliament won’t last [its full four-year term].” An electoral process is clearly broken when even those participating see little value in doing so.
Months before the polls, King Abdullah appeared on The Daily Show and noted, “The difference between Jordan and other countries is we changed the constitution, we changed a third of the constitution, we did a lot of different things, a new constitutional court, a new independent commission for elections, and then we went to elections.”
Host Jon Stewart proceeded to finish his thought process, chiming in that the king’s steps laid the foundations, while in the case of other countries in transition, such as Egypt, Libya, and Tunisia, “it wasn’t necessarily a managed transition, and that can be slightly volatile.”
While the international community is right to pressure Jordan's king to manage a democratic transition in a volatile neighborhood, that reform agenda must be meaningful enough to meet the democratic aspirations of Jordan’s citizens.
Instead, the new electoral law unveiled months before the king’s TV interview did little to address the election’s “systemic distortions” which the National Democratic Institute delegation noted. Those distortions include “the unequal size of districts and an electoral system that amplifies family, tribal and national cleavages [which] limit the development of a truly national legislative body.” As a result, the new parliament strongly resembles the flawed and unrepresentative one that it replaces.
Subsequently, the effusive American praise heaped on the kingdom has given undue credibility to a top-down process that has produced only superficial improvements to the political system. In one of his first public appearances as secretary of State, John Kerry raved in agreement with the Jordanian foreign minister, “…this election is really the milestone – it represents a huge first step in this ongoing reform process, and I think we are all very proud of what they’ve accomplished.”