The Jordanian government is gearing up for parliamentary elections tomorrow that it sees as a referendum on this small kingdom's attempts at gradual reform.
Polls taken throughout the year, however, show disinterest or disenchantment from a large portion of the electorate. Years of stagnant politics have dulled popular expectations that much will change.
In response, Jordan's leaders have engaged in a major public relations campaign to convince citizens to participate in the Jan. 23 poll, calling it a critical moment that will shape the way the kingdom is governed in the future.
"Now is the time for us to move actively toward key, practical milestones in that journey towards democracy. This election is one of those critical steps," wrote Jordan's King Abdullah II in local newspapers at the end of December – an unexpected moment of broad public outreach from a monarch who has earned criticism from activists and analysts for his low profile during Jordan's two years of street protests. "I call on all fellow citizens to actively engage in important decisions and problem-solving activities of our society," he wrote. "This starts now, by making our voices heard in the election campaigns and by voting on election day."
The opposition has been pushing back, saying the elections do not offer genuine democracy, and asking Jordanians not to participate in a process opposition figures see as fundamentally flawed and conducted under a law widely described as unfair. They, too, see the elections as a turning point: They expect that a record-low turnout and the election of another unpopular parliament will discredit the reform program the government has been pushing and breathe new life into the opposition.
Ghaith Al-Qudah, chairman of the youth wing of the Islamic Action Front, Jordan's largest political party, says he expects as much as 60 percent of the new MPs to be political veterans, who are widely seen as ineffective and corrupt. "This would be very, very bad; a very dark point for our elections." But, he says, "if we have the same guys like the old guys, who corrupted our life, this will be a very strong point for us [in the opposition]: that nothing has been changed."
Boycott rallies small
As election day approaches, however, the opposition strategy looks to be losing steam. On Friday, a coalition of opposition groups staged a seven-hour mass rally in central Amman, but only drew about 2,000 people. That's a relatively small turnout for a party that has been able to put 10,000 to 15,000 people in the streets.
Organizers suggested various causes for the weak showing, including poor planning and the recent cold weather. But members of some non-Islamist opposition movements said the problem was deeper, a demonstration that the elections were not actually a strong point for the opposition.
"It's a good message to the Islamic movement, and to the opposition, that people of Jordan cannot be moved ... on other people's priorities," says Mothanna Gharaibeh, an independent leftist activist. In 2012, when the government raised fuel prices, thousands of Jordanians took to the streets without encouragement from the Islamic movement, he pointed out. But today's issues are different: "all the dialogue about the election law, it's just a dialogue between politicians, it's not a priority for Jordanians."
His analysis lines up with polls conducted throughout the year by groups like the US-based International Republican Institute, and Jordan's Center for Strategic Studies, which suggest that while the government is fairly unpopular, that sentiment is based more on generalized frustration with the country's poor economic situation than on specific political issues.
But Mr. Gharaibeh also says there are growing worries about the Islamist movement, on the back of the insecurity that has reigned since an Islamist government took the helm in Egypt.
"Many people who are against the election law, who are against the elections, they are boycotting the elections, but they did not want to go out into the street with the Islamists, after the Egyptian experience," he said. Both organizers and participants in Friday's protest expressed similar confidence that the silent majority would support their boycott.
The poor showing at the demonstration is a small black eye for the opposition, but the critical question is still how many people will actually vote on Wednesday.
Controversial election law
Changing Jordan's election law has been a major demand of the protesters who have maintained a constant presence in Jordan's streets for nearly two years, and it is at the heart of the current fight. Analysts, election monitors, and even Jordan's own political reform committees have all pointed at the election law as a major reason why parliaments here are seen as out of touch and ineffective.
The law is unusual in that it gives each citizen one vote in a multi-seat constituency. This makes it difficult for political party candidates to get elected, as most Jordanians face social pressure to use their one vote for "independent" candidates, who represent the interest of their particular tribe or family. The law was created in the early 1990s after an Islamist-dominated opposition won a majority voice in parliament, and most historians and analysts say it was created specifically to keep leftists and Islamists out of the legislature. In the next election, in 1993, political party representation in parliament dropped radically.
Jordan's voting districts are also wildly unequal in weight, with areas seen as regime strongholds getting a higher proportion of votes: In 2010, the International Republican Institute's election monitors noted that a parliamentarian from one district might represent 7,500 voters, while a parliamentarian from another might represent 46,000.
"Most people in Jordan consider the 'one vote' system to be an extremely backward one, because it fragments society and creates hatred between people," said one protester at Friday's rally, a teacher from the southern town of Tafileh. He asked that his name not be used. "We want the downfall of this backward election law, and to fight [corruption] by coming up with a new, modern, and civilized law that would serve the society as a whole. This will enable us to hold corrupt people accountable."
In 2011, in response to protests, the state called for a review of the elections law. The version that was finally passed in 2012 contained fewer changes than many had hoped for. Jordan now has a convoluted system by which most of the 150 seats will be elected under the same process as before, while 27 will be elected on a "national list," which may make it possible for political parties, with actual policies, to gain a foothold. (Editor's note: This paragraph has been edited to correctly reflect when the elections law went into effect.)
The king says this is the first step toward real, European-style parliamentary democracy, and has promised to consult with parliamentary figures on choosing the next prime minister. Eventually, he has said, parliaments may be able to choose their own leaders – though in a paper published last week he suggested that process could take more than a decade. In the months since the January elections were announced, the government and the royal court have been engaging in a full-court public diplomacy press, trying to get citizens to buy into the process, with the elections as its centerpiece.
But the opposition, which has seen years of political reform initiatives fall by the wayside, says the process is not a genuine attempt at reform: It is too slow, the number of national list seats is too few to make any real difference, and the new parliament is likely to be just a repeat of the last ones. If Wednesday's turnout is poor, the opposition believes it will have a moment to press its longstanding argument that the regime has no intention of allowing real democracy.
A strong turnout in the elections, on the other hand, would be a substantial victory for the regime, which will be able to say that most Jordanians support its extremely gradual reform process.