From Petra, Jordan
On Tuesday, August 27, a large majority of Jordanian cities, including the capital, held municipal elections. Traveling by car from Amman to Petra through Kerak, it was easy to notice a large degree of absenteeism and disillusionment, along with a general sense of tension.
This election was important because it showed three things: the Syrian refugee crisis is straining Arab regional politics, political Islam is likely to be estranged from democratic politics for years to come, and democratic and liberal movements are losing momentum in the Arab world.
3.7 million people were eligible to vote in Tuesday's elections. Even though municipal elections do not usually see great numbers in terms of voter turnout, Monday ended with the government stating that "more Jordanians than ever before" were expected to partake in the election. Tension was rising due to expected voting inefficiency and police presence. While the government was urging many to vote, Minister of the Interior Majali emphasized the same day that although not forbidden by law, members of the security agencies and armed forces would be unable to take part to the election.
Increased police presence, taken near Amman's First Circle near a polling station.
This last minute announcement was yet another source of complaint. "It's the same game," commented a cab driver. "The government controls it — steal money or put your friends in positions of power." The population seems to put most of the organizational blame on Prime Minister Abdullah Ensour. A waitress at a renowned liberal cafè commented that the election was "nothing special" and that it could not spark any real change.
The election led to the confirmation in power of the current tribal establishment on which the king relies greatly for national consensus. The liberal and leftist parties did not gain much ground.
Meanwhile, the other main political forces in the country remained absent.
The Muslim Brotherhood's Boycott
Right before the election the Muslim Brotherhood's Jordanian political wing, the main opposition party, decided to boycott the election by not presenting any candidate. Following this move, the results could have not been more predictable. While this has been seen before in Jordan, it is most likely a direct result of the events in Egypt. With the coup against the Muslim Brotherhood early this summer (and yes, it was a coup, nobody voted), political Islam was sent a strong, disillusioning message. The response was its self-alienation from the political process, relying on underground and side influence through civil society.
Taken by a voting station in downtown Kerak, slogans were being chanted outside from a bus.
The same thing happened in Jordan, and the elections reflected it. While one may not sympathize with these forces, exclusion can only lead to polarization and potentially to violence. If both moderate and traditional Islamist forces are not allowed to participate or if they deliberately abandon democratic debate, the prospects for democracy in the years to come are meek.
The Syrian Effect
This is not the only regional issue that reflected in the election in Jordan. Out of 6.8 million Jordanians, the Syrian conflict led to the migration of over 500,000 refugees into Jordan. This caused major tension. Jordan has always had electricity and water management issues. The country's main protests derive from subsistence and price fluctuation. With the incoming presence of Syrians in refugee camps, this dynamic was strained even more. As this will also strain the country's education and health systems, cities like Mafraq saw increased tensions between the guest and host populations.
The Zaatari Camp, located in Northern Jordan, in a video by MinWashington.
Mafraq is less than six miles from the Zaatari camp, which is temporary home to more than 150,000 Syrians who emigrated during the conflict. As decisions are being made by Western powers, the Syrian war has clearly left an irreversible impact on the region. The international community has dealt poorly with the refugee crisis, and should not be surprised that tensions have surfaced as a result.
More Pictures Taken on the Ground
Another polling station in Kerak earlier in the morning. School was cancelled for the day and many young Kerakis stood by the center.
Poor advertisement techniques by Ibn Keaki (Literally, Kerak's son), one of the main municipal candidates.
Absenteeism, A Symptom of Disillusionment
Overall, the election showed how these two factors contributed to a general loss of momentum in liberal movements in the region. Barely more than 10% of Amman's eligible voters cast their votes in the election on Tuesday. Majali, in a humiliating announcement following his previous grand prediction, stated that only around 37% of Jordanians voted across the country. As tension rises, votes decline, and parties leave open politics, the legitimacy of democratic processes diminishes.
Jordan has long been one of the few countries that could boast for a sustainable form of parliamentary rule, however large the role of King Abdullah II may be. However, even if Jordan wishes to regain the trust of its voters, this election shows the government still has much work to do. As the United States weighs how to best affirm its international "credibility" by striking Syria, President Obama should also understand how important this development is in Syria's neighbor to the south.