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Jordan elections will be a reality check for King Abdullah II

The parliamentary elections will show whether the public finds the king credible in a changed Middle East after the 'Arab Spring.'

January 23, 2013|By Ned Parker, Los Angeles Times
  • Jordanians vote in parliamentary elections at a station in the Baqaa Palestinian refugee camp near Amman.
Jordanians vote in parliamentary elections at a station in the Baqaa Palestinian… (Jamal Nasrallah / European…)

AMMAN, Jordan — Jordan's parliamentary elections Wednesday crystallized the challenges facing King Abdullah II in his 13th year in power: Can he provide a government that is credible with his restive population and able to tackle the nation's serious economic woes and endemic corruption?

At least 56% of the 2.3 million registered voters turned out, the nation's electoral commission said, in what some observers described as an endorsement of Abdullah's reform plans. The turnout topped the 53% for the parliamentary elections in 2010 even though several major parties boycotted the balloting. Results are expected Thursday.

For a decade, Abdullah has struggled to follow through on promises to modernize his kingdom. He touted Wednesday's elections, called to fill the 150-seat lower house of the parliament, as the centerpiece of his reformist agenda amid the popular uprisings sweeping the Middle East.

Analysts and diplomats credit Abdullah for institutionalizing national party lists for 27 of the seats; the other seats are filled by elections in individual districts and by quota for minorities. He also established a commission for overhauling voter rolls.

However, the king's promise to pick his Cabinet in consultation with the incoming parliament has been widely derided by voters and observers alike as a fiction because Abdullah will have the final say in any selection process.

"The real issue is that decision-making is very narrow and completely centralized — between Abdullah and the intelligence services," said the Washington-based Atlantic Council think tank in a report released last week. "Unless this power distribution changes, there is likely to be serious unrest on the horizon."

Experts and some diplomats worry that the king could soon find himself in a position of weakness. Rioting erupted in November over the slashing of fuel subsidies. With new conditions for a loan from the International Monetary Fund, Jordan will be doing away with more price controls in the coming months that could spark riots.

How Abdullah navigates through the minefield of his citizens' expectations, deflects the tension of a war in neighboring Syria and manages the rise of Islamists across the Middle East will be his seminal test.

Among his bigger challenges, Abdullah has watched the fraying of his support among eastern tribes, a bedrock of his monarchy, since the start of the "Arab Spring" uprisings in late 2010, as the view spread that the king is surrounded by a corrupt elite. Those sentiments have culminated in an active but small protest movement, known as Herak, around the country from within the tribal communities, called East Bankers.

The disillusionment has led to an unlikely alliance between the tribes and the Muslim Brotherhood, the Islamist party made up primarily of Jordanian Palestinians. The groups collaborate on weekly protests demanding reform, and both had called on supporters to boycott the vote. Jordan's Palestinians and East Bankers have long viewed one another with suspicion, but their developing relationship could put more pressure on Abdullah.

On a recent evening in Amman, Jordan's capital, members of one such group of Herak debated whether a king was necessary anymore.

"This more than any other has the potential to really cause problems for the king and the palace," said David Schenker, director of the Arab politics program at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, who has met with the Herak. "It represents a fraying of that traditional loyalty."

Those representing the king in the latest elections acknowledge that there are many problems. But they believe the formation of the new government will be a positive step forward and see the kingdom as embarked on a serious reform project.

Abed al Rahim Boulai, a parliament candidate, said he had faith in the king to address the nation's problems, including the corruption. He pointed to the chaos outside Jordan to explain why the reforms cannot be carried out more rapidly.

"After what we saw that happened in Egypt, we didn't want to move too fast," Boulai said. He concedes that Abdullah is not as charismatic as his father and predecessor, the late King Hussein. But he said times have changed and there is no way Abdullah could meet intimately with his subjects the way his father did.

Beyond questions of political reform and corruption at the top, the overriding concern for many voters Wednesday was finding a job and a sense of stability.

A woman standing outside the polling station said she had been looking for a job for two years. She was hoping the elections would create changes that eventually would bring opportunity her way.

ned.parker@latimes.com

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