Israel wasn’t the only country in its region going to the polls this week. Jordan also voted on Wednesday, in an election that King Abdullah II has promised will be a step towards parliamentary government. No official results appear to have been posted on the internet (certainly none that can be found without a working knowledge of Arabic), but reports say, unsurprisingly, that “tribal leaders, government loyalists and independent businessmen” are the major winners.
The elections were boycotted by the major opposition party, the Islamic Action Front, a branch of the Muslim Brotherhood. The Brotherhood maintain that the system is rigged against them; as the BBC reports, although more than two thirds of the population lives in cities, they have less than one third of the seats. The parliament is also weighted heavily in favor of first-past-the-post constituencies, traditionally a stronghold of pro-government independents.
Still, by the standards of the Arab world as of two years ago, these are relatively trivial complaints. The fact that Jordan has had a functioning parliament for more than 20 years and that the Brotherhood is allowed to operate openly was enough to put it in the (sparsely-populated) front rank of liberal Arab states.
Since the Arab Spring began two years ago, however, populations have been demanding more. Protests in the first half of 2011 led to promises of change, a new prime minister, overtures to the opposition and limited reforms to the electoral system. The king, however, has cautioned that “change will be very gradual and it will take one or two parliamentary cycles before proper political parties emerge.”
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There’s nothing that says democracy has to arrive all at once; a gradual transition may often be the most sensible approach. But given the constitutional apparatus Jordan already has in place, it seems that much more could have been done more quickly if Abdullah had been serious about change. He may not be insincere about ultimately wanting parliamentary government, but it is clearly not his top priority.
Like Mohammed VI of Morocco, Abdullah has tried to preserve his position by steering a moderate course through the Arab Spring. From the rulers’ point of view, moderate reform has so far been a vastly more successful strategy than repression: Abdullah shows no sign of sharing the fate that befell Colonel Gaddafi and that still waits for Bashar al-Assad.
But Jordan and Morocco are also much more liberal places than the states that have resisted reform, such as Bahrain and Saudi Arabia (or Syria, at least so far).
For the moderate path, being a monarchy seems to help. We know that monarchies can transform gradually into democracies – Britain did it over the course of a couple of centuries. “Constitutional monarchy” is a well-established category, but there’s really no such thing as a constitutional dictator; a dictator who tries to reform nearly always finds himself out of a job.
The problem is that progress depends very much on the abilities and intentions of one man. If the king gets it wrong, Jordan could be in for a much more messy transition down the track.