JORDAN has long been the West’s ally in the Middle East, a disposition which continues today under King Abdullah II and his wife Rania, the Queen consort of Jordan.
But recently Islamists in the capital’s streets have been calling for dramatic change.
The leader of Jordan’s Muslim Brotherhood, Hammam Saeed, publicly called for the country to become a “state in the Muslim Caliphate”, winning cheers from bearded Islamists who gathered to hear him last week.
The call for a state stripped of its monarchy is one indication of how heated the debate has become around the parliamentary elections being held today.
For father-of-four King Abdullah, 50, the election offers a way to control the move to greater democracy, as he cedes enough of his powers to parliament to forestall any Arab Spring-style uprisings such as the ones that toppled autocrats in Egypt, Libya, Yemen and Tunisia and fuelled civil war in Syria.
“The elections are a theatrical comedy, which we will not take part in,” said Zaki Bani Irsheid of the Islamic Action Front, the Brotherhood’s political party. “It is part of a royal gimmick to buy time and block any moves toward real and genuine reforms.”
The Brotherhood is boycotting the vote, as are four smaller parties, including Communists and Arab nationalists. But the Islamists haven’t been able to rally the public to their side. Many Jordanians distrust the Brotherhood, eyeing its rise in Egypt and fearing it could grab power in Jordan, causing upheaval.
The protest last Friday at which Mr Saeed spoke numbered just over 1,000, despite the Brotherhood’s boasts it would bring out tens of thousands.
The government says the measured pace of reform aims to acclimatise Jordan to democracy. King Abdullah began the reform process last year, handing more authority to the newly elected parliament. The Chamber of Deputies will now have a freer hand to draw up legislation, a stronger role in monitoring the Cabinet and, for the first time, MPs, not the king, will choose the prime minister.
An Independent Electoral Commission was created, taking over responsibility for the elections from the interior ministry.
Last week, King Abdullah signalled he was ready to relinquish more powers in future.
“The system of ruling in Jordan is evolving … and the monarchy which my son will inherit will not be the same as the one I inherited,” he said. Officials said the king wanted to ensure an “effective” system of governance in which mature political parties can fill a vacuum to be left by the monarchy stepping back from running the state.
With the opposition staying out of the race, the next parliament is likely to be a mix of inexperienced independents and royalist conservatives. The Brotherhood says it is boycotting the polls since the process is biased towards the royalists.
Turnout among the 2.3 million registered voters could be a key measure of how much trust the public feels for the reform programme. The Commission said 1,425 candidates, including 191 women and about 139 former MPs, are vying for seats in the new, 150-member lower house of parliament.
The king has said the next steps will be to build real political parties. He wants to streamline 23 small and fractured parties into three to five coalitions based on ideology – Right, Left and centre – for future elections. “It’s an exciting political process, which will show a new face to Jordan as it peacefully transforms itself into a full-fledged democracy with not a single drop of blood shed,” said engineer Emad Nafaa, 42.
But nurse Aida Abu Odeh, 32, said the reforms were cosmetic. “Nobody enjoying power ever suddenly decides to give it up.”