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. 

Muhammad Hamed/Reuters
Jordan's King Abdullah II and his wife Queen Rania wait for the arrival of Britain's Prince Charles and his wife Camilla, Duchess of Cornwall, at the Royal Palace in Amman March 12. Op-ed contributor Cole Bockenfeld writes: 'American trumpeting of [Jordan's] modest [reforms] – while failing to call for further progress – only exacerbates the problem by reinforcing the king’s false impression that such reforms are sufficient.'

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.

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.”

Mr. Kerry continued to laud the “record level of turnout, notwithstanding one group’s decision to boycott – it was higher than any time previously, which shows a full and robust participation by the Jordanian people in the election process.” However, the real turnout rate – which takes into account the total number of eligible voters who did not register for this round of voting – is closer to 40 percent, which is lower than the figure for the elections held in 2010.

If the Obama administration wants to be taken seriously by reformers in the Arab world, it must appraise elections in the Middle East – and the opportunities they present once every few years to talk about democratic reform – in a more serious and honest way.

In the short term, Jordan’s flawed election law should be immediately revisited by a diverse panel that includes parliamentary members, political forces that boycotted the polls, as well as independent civil society organizations. Upon the swearing-in of new members of parliament, the king himself conceded that the election law “was not ideal, although it earned as much consensus as was possible.”

The rough parameters of meaningful electoral reform are well-known. They must include an electoral system that redraws vastly unequal districts (the most underrepresented district in the most recent election had more than 96,000 voters per member of parliament – while the most overrepresented had less than 14,000). The electoral system must be changed to create incentives for the creation organized political parties, a shift away from Jordan's current system, which encourages voting along local and tribal lines. A parliament whose largest bloc selects the prime minister independently from the king must be established. Jordan also needs a strengthened independent election commission that can implement and enforce tougher regulations on corruption to clean up campaigning.

The obstacle to real electoral reform in Jordan along these lines is not uncertainty about how to move forward, it is the lack of political will to do so.

For a country that prides itself on being stable, progressive, and a dependable ally of the West, Jordan must do more to meet the high bar it sets for itself. US praise for limited reforms not only reinforces a hollow and fragile process, it is also a strategic miscalculation in a volatile region.

Jordan’s king and Secretary Kerry are sorely mistaken if they believe these elections are ahead of the curve of reformist demands in the country. The only way for the US to maintain the kingdom as a stable ally in the long-term is to more strongly prod the king toward gradual – but meaningful ­– reform that meets the rising expectations of Jordan’s citizens. 

Cole Bockenfeld is the director of advocacy at the Project on Middle East Democracy, a nonpartisan, nonprofit organization in Washington, DC dedicated to examining how genuine democracies can develop in the Middle East and how the US can best support that process. Mr. Bockenfeld's writing on Middle Eastern politics and US foreign policy has been published by Foreign Policy, The Daily Star, Daily News Egypt, and The Hill's Congress blog.

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