x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 23 January 2018

Jordan's king hits campaign trail to thwart Islamists in vital election

King Abdullah II touts his reform agenda in parliamentary vote to redirect some of the angry demands for change that have fuelled street protests. Hugh Naylor reports from Amman

Posters and banners for today’s elections are displayed in the streets near Amman.
Posters and banners for today’s elections are displayed in the streets near Amman.

AMMAN // It has been an unprecedented political campaign by King Abdullah II of Jordan - and today he will find out if it worked.

The king has spent the past few weeks touting a reform agenda in meetings with the secular opposition, in interviews with the media and in newspaper editorials under his own name. The aim is to turn out the vote in today's parliamentary elections and redirect some of the angry demands for change that have fuelled regular street protests.

The campaign by the 50-year-old leader, whose late father King Hussein was renowned for his political acumen, appears to be having some success. In contrast, the Muslim Brotherhood and other opponents of the government look disjointed and weak.

The king's strategy of appealing to the non-Islamist opposition to marginalise political forces he regards as damaging to Jordan's interests - the Muslim Brotherhood and its Islamist allies - has benefited from the turmoil lapping at the country's border, analysts say.

"The king is a keen reader of regional developments, and he has been able to see those and use them to his advantage at home, and we have to grant him that," said Osama Al Sharif, a columnist and analyst in Amman.

Turmoil in the region - the bloody civil war in Syria, the flight of Syrian refugees into Jordan and the political ascent of Islamists in Egypt - has bolstered the king by fuelling the fear of instability among Jordanians.

In turn, that has scared away potential support for the Muslim Brotherhood and its calls for change, despite Jordan's languishing economy and recent price rises, Mr Sharif said.

The Islamist group is boycotting today's vote in protest at a recently amended election law that it says heavily favours the monarchy's traditional support base. A pro-boycott rally called by the Brotherhood last week drew few demonstrators.

That lag in support may yet prove temporary. In the meantime, however, the king has deftly exploited the political opening to court other opponents and critics of the government.

The king's aggressive campaign has not gone unnoticed by the public, who still hold King Hussein in high esteem for his skilful navigation of the country's fractious tribes and majority Palestinian population.

Since he ascended to the throne with the death of King Hussein in 1999, King Abdullah has rarely been credited with sharing his father's political finesse, at least until recently.

Amer Tubeishat, an activist from the northern city of Irbid, met King Abdullah on December 10 with a number of leftist activists at the Amman residence of a former deputy prime minister.

The king listened to their suggestions for political reform and for tackling corruption as they ate mensaf, a Bedouin dish, says Mr Tubeishat, who described the encounter as "surprising" but also a "genuine and a serious dialogue".

More significantly, Mr Tubeishat said, the king expressed regret for the detentions a month earlier of Mr Tubeishat and dozens of other activists who had participated in protests against the lifting of fuel subsidies.

That sign of remorse led Mr Tubeishat and some activists to drop their opposition to today's vote.

During the gathering, the king also voiced concern about the Muslim Brotherhood opposition and urged the activists to repudiate the Brotherhood by defying its call for an election boycott. He also warned that Islamists in Jordan would try to seize control in the country and "do what they did in Egypt" under the Islamist president, Mohammed Morsi, Mr Tubeishat said.

The Muslim Brotherhood is infuriated by suggestions that its aim is to monopolise power in Jordan. If anything, it says, it is the government that does not want to share power.

"There isn't any dialogue between us and the government," said Hamza Mansour, secretary general of the Brotherhood's political wing, the Islamic Action Front. "And it's clear from the government's statements and practices they are trying to keep us from holding positions."

How to handle the Islamists was also the focus of a December 9 meeting between King Abdullah and secular activists. Khalid Kalaldeh, a leftist opposition activist, said the king asked for suggestions on how stop the election boycott.

Mr Kalaldeh recommended imposing emergency rule, which would allow the king to suspend the polls and formulate an election law acceptable to the Islamists and other boycotting groups.

"But because imposing such an emergency situation is not good for the country's image both locally and internationally, the king decided against that recommendation," Mr Kalaldeh said.

Besides his unusual campaign to reach out to his critics, King Abdullah has also signalled an eventual change in the monarchy's relationship with the Jordanian people.

In an interview published this month with the French newspaper Le Nouvel Observateur, he suggested restricting his family's powers.

"The monarchy my son will inherit will not be the same monarchy I inherited," he told the newspaper.

In a paper published on his website in December, the king described moving towards "key, practical milestones in that journey towards democracy". In another paper published this month, he promised the next prime minister would be selected through "consultation with the majority coalition".

Yet what will happen after today's vote, which is expected to produce another ineffective, stalemate parliament, is far from clear.

Turnout among the 2.3 million registered voters could be a key measure of how much trust or enthusiasm the public feels for the reform programme the king has been keen to sell. About 1,425 candidates, including 191 women and about 139 former members, are vying for seats in the new, 150-member lower house of parliament.

Mr Sharif said the king, his security forces and tribal loyalists are hoping an economic recovery would quiet demands for major political reforms. For that recovery, he said, the king was counting on the Gulf Cooperation Council, which has pledged about Dh18 billion in Jordanian development projects.

Yet even some positive economic news and highly publicised anti-corruption cases launched by authorities will not replace the need for substantive reform. Tension is likely to flare, especially among unemployed youth, said Labib Kamhawi, an independent political analyst in Amman.

"These young guys, they talk crazy. They are so angry, and that anger is shared between the leftists and the Islamists."


* Additional reporting by Suha Philip Ma'ayeh

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