The pundits got it wrong. They had predicted that the Jordanian general election of November 8 would result in the overwhelming return of traditional candidates with only a smattering of opposition deputies, enough to provide a vigorous, vocal check on government, but marginal in terms of setting a political agenda and molding policy.
This prevailing view among the liberal, educated, middle classes, Palestinian and Jordanian alike, who comprise the kingdom’s commentators and analysts, was also the view of the royal palace. Inevitably it became the view of the foreign embassies, and the view of foreign journalists who rely so heavily on diplomatic briefings.
On the eve of the poll, the US embassy in Amman was passing on palace estimates to visiting correspondents that Muslim fundamentalists would take seven or eight seats. In fact, Islamist candidates took 34 of the 80 seats; the Muslim Brothers saw 20 of their 26-candidate slate elected. In Amman, Islamist candidates won 14 of the 18 seats reserved for Muslim Arabs; in Irbid, Jordan’s second city, Islamists occupied the top five slots in terms of the popular vote. The experience was similar, though on a smaller scale, with leftist and nationalist candidates, who had been thought lucky to win any seats at all. Six nationalists and four leftists won seats, including a communist, three neo-Baathists and one each from the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP) and the Jordanian People’s Democratic Party (a Jordanian manifestation of the DFLP).
What produced such a surprisingly politicized parliament? The key factor is the economic crisis which rapidly enveloped the kingdom over the year prior to the poll. Then-Prime Minister Zayd al-Rifa‘i first began introducing austerity measures in the fall of 1988, banning certain luxury imports to save foreign currency and shave the balance of trade deficit.
But the economic maladies were too serious and structural to be alleviated by such last-minute gestures. Jordan had frittered away its reserves and saddled itself with enormous foreign debts (larger in per capita terms than Brazil or Mexico) in order to soften the impact of a regional recession that had spanned most of the 1980s. With its own resources depleted, its credit used up and the currency under deepening pressure, the International Monetary Fund stepped in and ordinary Jordanians suddenly began to feel the full impact of the economic crisis.
Jordan’s real political watershed occurred in the middle of April 1989, when riots broke out in a number of towns, particularly larger towns in the south noted for their traditional support of the monarchy. The disturbances erupted after the Rifa‘i government announced a batch of price rises as a result of the IMF “readjustment” accord. The regime made no attempt to think through the implications of, for instance, a hike in fuel prices for the livelihood of taxi drivers whose fares were fixed. Such was the arrogance of government without accountability. The protests, undoubtedly spontaneous, lasted some four days. They did not spread to the capital, and security forces did restore order, arresting almost all opposition figures in the process. But all this came too late. As one local journalist remarked, “The barrier of fear has collapsed.”
The “intifada of prices” was a popular outburst of anger against decades of economic and ultimately political misrule which had denuded the country of its assets and brought it to its knees. It was no coincidence that symbols of the state, such as government offices and banks, were the targets of the rioters. Outrage focused on the size of the external debt, which had been a well-kept secret, and the alleged corruption of public figures. There was a perceptible sense that the majority should not be forced to suffer now while a small group of individuals who had prospered exponentially at the expense of the country continued to enjoy their wealth.
People increasingly linked mounting economic problems with the shortcomings of the political system. The palace and semi-public institutions such as the Central Bank had easily been able to hide the magnitude of the crisis. Parliament was, with a handful of exceptions, a docile body dominated by traditional leaders; the last general election had been in April 1967. The courts operated under the constraint of martial law, which also stretched back to 1967. The press, which has always had to shadowbox with the Ministry of Information and the intelligence services, came under growing pressure during the middle of the 1980s.
King Hussein belatedly came to appreciate the depth of resentment in the country. He yielded political reforms as a quid pro quo for the immense economic burden which Jordanians will have to face to the end of the century. He announced elections in April and in mid-August he named a date, instructing that they be free and fair. Political parties remained banned, but the pernicious Article 18E of the 1986 Election Law, which bars candidates from illegal political parties and groupings, was simply ignored.
Campaigning for the expanded 80-seat National Assembly was characterized by both confusion and vigor. Altogether 647 candidates stood for election in 20 multi-member constituencies. With no formal political parties, and less than 15 percent of candidates standing on the slates put forward by the half-dozen or so political associations tolerated in the campaign, voters found it difficult to distinguish between candidates. Thus confusion may in part explain what many regarded as a disappointing turnout: While nearly 82 percent of the potential electorate of 1.25 million registered, only 555,497, under 55 percent of those registered, actually cast their votes.
Slogans on street banners and handbills saturated most neighborhoods. Candidates also staged political debates in “salons” and semi-private clubs around the country, where audiences tended to be large and vocal. Questions from the audiences were often frank and penetrating, especially those addressed by women, who appeared less intimidated by the inevitable presence of informers for the General Intelligence Department. The audiences keenly examined the past records of candidates, especially those who had held high office. Corruption and mismanagement emerged as the key issues. A number of former public figures, including the speaker of the outgoing National Assembly, ‘Akif al-Fayiz, failed in the poll. Those that were returned, such as former Foreign Minister Tahir al-Masri and the controversial ex-mayor of Amman, ‘Abd al-Ra’uf al-Rawabda, polled far fewer votes than expected.
Toward the end of the campaign it became clear that the Muslim Brothers and their fellow Islamists held the initiative. In the last days before the election the Brothers demonstrated their considerable support by holding a handful of major outdoor rallies in Amman, which attracted crowds of 10,000 and more. The growing strength of the Islamists, with the simple but stirring slogan “Islam Is the Solution,” plainly concerned the palace, notwithstanding the rosy predictions officials were making to foreign ambassadors.
Commentators both inside and outside Jordan have tended to imply that the success of the Islamists was a freak result. True, the government allowed the Brothers to function as a religious society while other political parties were banned. While there is some truth to this explanation, it owes more to wishful thinking on the part of Christians and secularists inside the country and of Westerners on the outside than to the realities on the ground.
The fact is that the organization benefited from the mobilizational power of Islam and the importance of the mosque in disseminating ideas and information. The experience of the leftists in the campaign indicates that the whole issue of political organization may be exaggerated. Some candidates and many supporters of groups like the Communists and the JPDP were in prison or in hiding until barely two months before the election. Nevertheless, such groups did better than most observers expected. By contrast, liberal groupings such as Jamal al-Sha‘ir’s United Democratic Association, which has operated openly for ten years, made little electoral impact and took no seats.
There were certainly other, more potent, reasons for the success of the Islamists. They, even more so than the leftists, were identified as not being part of the “ancien regime.” In the previous parliament, the Islamists, although only a handful out of a total of 60 deputies, were outspoken critics of the regime on issues such as human rights, corruption, and personal and political freedoms. To remind the electorate of his own commitment to such values, one of these former Islamist deputies, Layth al-Shubaylat, circulated cassettes of two of his speeches in Parliament. Other Islamists were perceived as having physically suffered at the hands of the state. In June one of the former Islamist MPs from Irbid, Ahmad Kufahi, was badly beaten by the secret police. Though not one of the more effective of the Islamist performers in the National Assembly over the preceding five years, Kufahi received 32,601 votes in November, the highest of any candidate anywhere in the country.
The appeal of the Islamists seems to go deeper than this negative legitimacy, especially in the poorer, crowded, urban constituencies. In most cases the Islamist candidates live in the areas that they now represent. And in those areas they often share the same simple, often frugal, lifestyle of their constituents. Furthermore, this is a relationship that goes back many years. People appear to identify with such figures as well as respect the personal piety that the Islamists profess.
There is one additional reason why the Islamists may have done so well during this last election. In the run-up to the poll, PLO Chairman Yasser Arafat was concerned to be seen to be keeping out of what he officially regarded as a Jordanian domestic affair. Known PLO figures, such as members of the Palestine National Council, were discouraged from standing; on the left all those nominated by the JPDP were Jordanians. The Palestine Embassy in Amman asked that “its name not be publicized in the election campaign in a way suggesting that it supports a particular candidate or a particular direction.”
Only an estimated 8 percent of the candidates were identified as Palestinians. This meant that the Palestinian-Jordanian dichotomy was never a key issue in the election, allowing both candidates and electors to fix squarely on the more pressing issues of economic crimes and denials of personal freedoms. The decision of the PLO to keep a low profile left the Islamists with much reduced competition in areas potentially receptive to politicized Islam — namely in the refugee camps and the poorer Palestinian areas of Amman and Zarqa. In such places support for Fatah, many of whose supporters are themselves deeply pious, is traditionally strong. Voters of Palestinian origin who hold Islamist views consequently were not forced to make what would have been a difficult choice.
The Islamists have emerged as the largest and most identifiable ideological movement in the National Assembly, with the Muslim Brothers the biggest and best disciplined of the political blocs. Together with the leftist and nationalist deputies, who also represent a break with the previous political order, the Islamist deputies comprise an opposition majority in the National Assembly. The mood of the country has obliged even traditional deputies to criticize the mismanagement, corruption and civil rights abuses of the past.
Sensing the mood of the new Assembly, the post-election prime minister, Mudar Badran — himself a former premier of seven years and one-time head of intelligence — speedily initiated a range of reforms, including promises to end martial law and harassment of the press and political activists. Such reforms from a man identified so strongly with the old political elite and with the primacy of security considerations underlines the new agenda dominating Jordanian politics. Jordan’s chronic imbalance between the legislature and the executive is at last being corrected. Political parties are expected to be legalized with the formulation of a National Charter sometime this year, though King Hussein appears to be in no hurry to see the charter adopted. With tensions mounting with Israel and the chances of a clash increasing somewhat, security concerns could take priority over liberal reforms.