While I was at MESA in Boston yesterday, I received a mysterious text message alerting me that something was about to happen in Jordan -- and sure enough, the King announced that the Parliament would be dissolved two years early, with no date for new elections scheduled. Does it matter?
The dissolution of Parliament kind of came out of nowhere, but it isn't a huge surprise. Jordanian officials have made little secret over the last few months of their frustration with the Parliament's performance -- failing to pass high priority legislation or amending it beyond recognition. The Jordanian public hasn't been much more impressed, with views of the Parliament even dimmer than usual. When I was there last month, one of the many swirling controversies revolved around whether the King would simply not call the Parliament into session so that legislation could be passed as a 'temporary law' (a constitutionally dubious proposition).
The irony here, of course, is that this Parliament is exactly what the regime wanted. It extensively intervened in the 2007 elections to produce precisely this kind of Parliament: over-representing the rural areas at the expense of urban (and more "Palestinian") areas, knocking out several strong personalities bidding to win a seat, and blatantly manipulating results to cut the Islamic Action Front's representation from 17 seats to 6 seats. Just goes to show, you can get what you want and still not be happy.
So where do they go from here? One option would be to simply rule without a Parliament, as King Abdullah did for a while between 2001 and 2003. That would allow the regime to pass its desired legislation without needing to get them through Parliament, at least. The case would be that reform is more important than democracy, so a temporary pause would actually be good for long-term prospects. It would remove the regime's excuses for not passing serious reform legislation, and if they actually pushed through positive reforms then it might even be welcomed given the poor reputation of the now-departed Parliament. On the other hand, this would be potentially harmful for Jordan's carefully cultivated international image. And it's hard to make the case that no Parliament is preferable to even a lousy Parliament in terms of democracy.
Another option is to call new elections, and run them pretty much the same as the 2007 elections -- or even more so. That would mean more gerrymandering, less opportunity for the Islamic Action Front to compete, and even more regime micro-management of the results. The outcome would likely to be a Parliament with all the same problems as this one, and even greater cynicism about Jordanian political life and prospects.
The third, and in my view the best, option would be to call new elections under a better electoral law which allows for more honest and open political competition. This would be risky for the regime, given public dissatisfaction with politics and the economy and official corruption and all the rest, along with the deep fears and uncertainties surrounding the Israeli-Palestinian relationship and its possible effects on Jordan. But given the intense internal problems of the Muslim Brotherhood over the last few months, it's unlikely that they would try to do more than reach a respectable level of representation -- not try to "win." And there's no other meaningful opposition, thanks to the way the political system has been shaped. So this option -- real, free and fair elections -- may be less risky than it appears, and may have some real upside.
We'll see what the Jordanians decide to do. I wouldn't be surprised if the initial move is to pass a bunch of temporary laws during the recess under any scenario. This will be a test of the regime's real commitment to reforms, which many skeptics doubt. I fear that the second move after that will be to then go to option 2, more of the same kinds of elections. Let's hope that it isn't, and that the Jordanians take the opportunity to really shake things up and deal with the underlying problems of the Kingdom.