A New Chapter in Jordan’s Electoral Saga

Despite initial optimism, Jordan’s draft election law does little to erase parties’ disadvantage against tribal candidates.

Jordan’s parliament is currently considering amending the government’s 2012 election law, and the Legal Committee is holding public hearings with political parties and other interested groups. For every election cycle, Jordan has had to draft a new election law bill. These are accompanied by a public debate, followed by declarations from parties as to whether they will take part in the upcoming elections or boycott them. The last election, which took place on January 23, 2013, was the second in a row boycotted by the Islamic Action Front (IAF), Jordan’s main opposition party and Muslim Brotherhood’s political wing.

The resulting parliament was so lacking in initiative that when King Abdullah II magnanimously allowed it to nominate the prime minister—a constitutional prerogative of the monarch—the new factions groped around aimlessly for a couple of weeks before nominating the incumbent prime minister, Abdullah Ensour, whom the king had appointed the previous fall. The 2012 election law that produced this parliament retained Jordan’s one vote system—which has consistently weakened political parties in favor of tribal candidates—but included twenty-five seats to be elected on a proportional basis nationwide. But after they won seats, MPs began changing parties, which have spent the past two and a half years merging, splitting, or forming into new coalitions without producing either a functioning majority or credible opposition.

The next parliamentary election needs to be held by October 2016, with the exact date yet to be set by parliament—unless its term is extended by the king, which he may do for up to two years. In preparation, the government completed a new election law bill at the beginning of September. Prepublication leaks indicated that it would abolish the one vote system for good in favor of a more proportional system. This led to premature celebration from political parties, including guarded support from the Islamic opposition. But the mood turned quickly once Ensour produced the bill on August 31.

Key provisions in the draft law include Article 8, which provides that, “The kingdom will be divided into electoral districts which are to include 130 parliamentary seats, according to a special bylaw to be issued for this purpose.” Article 9 further provides that “Candidacies for parliamentary seats assigned to electoral districts will be filled through proportional, open lists.” This means that a party or bloc must provide a list of candidates for each district, and the number of names listed can be no greater than the total number of seats available. Crucially, Article 9 continues, “The voter is to cast a vote for one of the lists first, and then vote for a number of candidates on that list.” Then once votes are tallied, Article 47 stipulates that the number of seats a party or bloc list gets is proportional to its vote total and that candidates winning more votes are elected from that list.

The draft legislation also contains other provisions of note: voters who are Christian, Circassian, or Chechnyan are free to vote in any province where there is a minority seat reserved for them, and candidates for these seats are allowed to run individually or on lists. And Articles 8 and 9 set a women’s quota of one seat per province, like the previous law also stipulated. This means at least 15 out of 130 members of the next parliament will be women, if not more. Because the total number of seats have decreased, women are likely to have a larger proportion of seats than before. The last election produced 19 women MPs out of 150: 15 from the quota, and four won competitively.

The positive welcome for the new election law ended as soon as the bill was made public. The most prominent criticism was that it eliminated the twenty-five nationwide proportional seats, seen by parties as a modest move toward fair representation. The new introduction of proportional allocation of seats at the provincial level could be more favorable to parties than the previous law, which was structured to facilitate the election of local tribal candidates. Yet by removing the national-level proportional seats, from the point of view of the parties, the government has negated the parties’ modest advantage in the district elections.

The bill also does not allocate seats by province; the current draft provides that seats will be allocated by a bylaw at a later date, presumably after the election law has already been passed. And previous elections have always over-allocated seats to rural areas in which tribesmen, who are the monarchy’s base, predominate. The three additional badia districts (“countryside” or desert areas in the north, center, and south) will also add to the East Banker total.

But none of the political parties, including the IAF, have any substantial support in rural areas. In the debate over the 2012 law, much was made over the increase in seats allocated to Amman and Zarqa, the two major urban areas, which contain large Palestinian populations that do not favor the tribesmen. But have parties done poorly in rural areas because the one vote system has corralled voters into supporting a local tribal candidate, or have tribal candidates consistently won because the parties have done such a poor job spreading their message among the population? Aside from the Islamists, whose support is disproportionately Palestinian, the only other opposition consists of leftist parties, who won only a handful of seats in 2013. In addition to their strident secularism and support for the widely detested Assad regime in Syria, these groups have no plausible program, advocating an expanded state role even though the current state budget is universally known to be unsupportable without foreign aid. Factions with weight in parliament, most notably the National Union Party, are loyalist parties whose makeup and program are not much different than that of any group of tribal candidates.

A third, more technical criticism, is that the new electoral structure will mainly bring about competition within lists, because after voting for a list voters are asked to vote within it. This could result in a different form of tribal electoral competition, as voters select list candidates who were endorsed by an informal “tribal primary” before election day.

Mustapha Al-Shanikat, an MP from the small Democratic Left party, expressed the political opposition’s mixed views on the new law in an interview in his parliament office. Describing it as “a kind of progress, but one which will not achieve much,” Shanikat admitted that the parties were weak and needed to build themselves up over time. He emphasized the need to have a law that tries to overcome tribalism, saying that having an open list system was harmful and that “due to the nature of our society, the election would be based more on political programs if parties chose the candidates.” Yet Shanikat also emphasized that “there are positives to Jordan’s political system: we have stability, no one is calling for revolution. We need incremental change.” The question is whether the next elections will even bring gradual change, or just hold things in place in a different way.

This article is reprinted with permission of Sada. It can be accessed online here.

Kirk H. Sowell is a political risk analyst based in Amman, Jordan. On Twitter: @uticensisrisk.

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