14.02.2013 analysis by Ben Steinberg
photo: WEF
photo: WEF    

Jordan’s Parliamentary Elections: Much Ado About Nothing

If King 'Abdullah wants to bequeath the throne to his son, he’ll need to speed up the democratization process

On January 23rd, 2013, the day after Israel elected new members to its Knesset, Jordan held its 17th parliamentary elections. The Jordanian parliament is known as the “Lower House”, and it, in combination with the Senate (or “Upper House”), comprises the National Assembly. These legislative bodies together have challenged consecutive governments from time to time, albeit without challenging the monarchy itself. But their influence is limited, primarily to do the principle enshrined in the “one man, one vote” Election Law of 1993. Because this principle created small sub-districts in which every voter was allowed to vote only for one local representative, it has been argued — quite correctly — that this system reinforced the importance of familial and tribal affiliations while simultaneously crushing what was then a budding national politics and ideology in the wake of the politically liberal 1989 elections. From that day to this, the conservative political and security elite has been able to thwart any attempt — some led by the regime itself — to alter the “one vote” principle and consequently increase the representation of the Palestinian urban center at the expense of the Trans-Jordanian rural periphery (i.e. “tribal” populations).

Despite powerful changes that have begun to take hold in the relationship between the Trans-Jordanian population and the Hashemite regime, and the fact that the last decade has made it clear to the regime that it cannot rely on the overly “tribal” parliaments, the conservative elite remained focused on the Islamist and Palestinian “dangers”, which it sees as only getting worse. The Election Law has changed a couple of times since the beginning of the “Arab Spring”, but most changes were procedural, and not fundamental. Fundamental change would require a shift on the principles mentioned above: in the “one vote” and in the representation of Trans-Jordanians. The last change to the law, which was applied to this latest round of elections, established a 150-seat Parliament, an increase from the earlier 120-seat body. Most of these MPs (108, in fact) were to be elected based on narrow, local considerations — a consequence of the “one man, one vote” principle. Quotas allocated to electoral lists running for the National Constituency (27 seats) and to women (15 seats) made up the remainder of the 150 seats.

Yet these reforms to the electoral system pale in comparison to the demands made by the opposition to allow no less than half of parliamentary seats to be chosen on the basis of partisan and ideological considerations. The Muslim Brotherhood (MB), represented in the Jordanian parliament by the Islamic Action Front (IAF) and various partiesand political forces, including some segments of the Transjordanian opposition, boycotted the elections. In the last few weeks the Brotherhood has rejected persistent efforts by the regime, through various channels, to persuade the movement to participate in the elections in order to “change the system from within”. The Brotherhood has publically explained that such change is only relevant in democratic countries, whereas in Jordan certain individuals prevent any possibility of change from the get-go. Yet the broader public had more important matters to attend to: electing their kin to take care for their basic needs and demands.

The results of the elections can be presented in two contradictory ways: the King’s boast to the international media that the elections constitute a “milestone” in Jordanian democratization versus the claim of the MB is that the elections were “symbolic, undemocratic, unconstitutional, and based on a retrograde law” — and, in their words, “claptrap”. Even supporters of the regime who participated in the elections accept that the Brotherhood’s description is a great deal closer to reality than the King’s. The only democratic “milestone” of these elections was that the voting itself took place freely and fairly — and thereby garnered praise from international observers, perhaps the most important outcome of any interest to the King. And yet the rest — the election law, upon which the elections where held; the way the government “encouraged” voter registration and the voting itself; allegations that accompanied the vote-counting process; the statistical manipulations; the connection between capital and power, and the resounding failure of the National Constituency — shows how deeply the 2013 Jordanian elections deserved the title “farce”. The regime will not find its saving grace in the 17th Parliament, having served only to perpetuate tribalism and sectarianism, and thus exacerbate internal political divisions and sow the potential for political unrest and discord on the street.

Election Day

As usual, many observers were misled by the manipulation of the Jordanian electoral numbers. The government officially announced that voter turnout was 56.68% — “among the highest in the kingdom’s history.” However, this figure is calculated out of the total number of citizens registered to vote (many of whom faced intense pressure to register). The electoral ledger includes a total of 2,272,000 names, of whom 1,288,000 voted on election day, yielding the figure quoted by the government. But turnout among the total number of Jordanians entitled to vote (some 3.6 million out of a total population of 6.8 million) was less than 40% — low by any standards. Given this low rate, it seems surprising that the MB resorted to an unfounded claim that Jordanian soldiers were “planning to go to vote” in order to raise the turnout, which was allegedly only 16.7%.

These numbers hide another, even more complex story. The official government statistics show that turnout was highest in the Transjordanian periphery, as it has been in the past. The three Bedouin provinces led with 70% turnout, while in the three main cities, where the percentage of Palestinians is particularly high, turnout was much lower — no more than 35-50% at some polling stations. There were some urban areas, however, where voter turnout rose sharply (and suspiciously) in the last two hours of voting. But overall, the turnout in “Palestinian” districts came to between 30-40%, higher than previous elections (which have been around 25-30%). Conversely, the turnout in Transjordanian areas fell from 75-85% in the previous elections to a mere 65-75%. These facts demonstrate yet again the growing disillusionment of the Transjordanian population with the institutionalized political sphere.

The king was particularly concerned that the elections be free and fair, as he considered it significant for Jordan’s international reputation. The Independent Election Committee (IEC) set up to supervise the elections performed admirably, despite the maneuverings of various shady bodies that attempted to interfere with the process. On Election Day itself, members appointed by the IEC quickly replaced polling booth committee members who were acting suspiciously.

Yet despite the IEC’s best efforts, the connection between capital and power was in evidence from early on in the campaign all the way through to Election Day. The IEC simply could not purge the widespread bribery and handing out of personal favors. A few candidates were arrested just before the elections, but it was too little and too late: it was universally known that some of those arrested still enjoyed the support of the authorities and were ultimately elected to parliament despite their arrest. A Jordanian elections observer ironically wrote that while the acts of voting were conducted properly, “we do not know what happened after we left the scene and they began to count the votes.” Voters and “vote contractors” gathered openly outside the polling stations, waiting impatiently to receive their payment from representatives of the candidates. The net result might be described as an insult to the intelligence of Jordanian voters, who heard only vacuous statements from all quarters about how “free and fair” the elections were.

Yet the game was played out to the full, and both voters and candidates seized the opportunity to jockey for positions, honors and benefits. The numbers are impressive: a total of 1,425 candidates competed in the elections, which included 139 former members of parliament — and just 191 women. A total of 606 candidates stood for election in the broad, 45-district seat in the general election, while the rest of the candidates (819) competed for a seat on one of the national parties vying for a place in the National Constituency quota. 4,069 polling stations were open throughout the Kingdom, secured by some 50,000 policemen and gendarmes. Finally, some 7,500 international and local observers skipped from polling station to polling station, diligently recording every detail of the impressively “democratic” picture. Western observers know from past experience to look for familiar signs of government tactics that raise turnout, but this time they arrived when the party was basically over. However, the glowing reports published by American observer institutions did not shy away from overt criticism of Jordan’s Elections Law. They recommended that the Law be amended to reflect the king’s declared objective to form a “full parliamentary government.” To do this, they suggest, the system must be more geographically and demographically representative and should seek to overcome — rather than perpetuate — tribal and communal rifts.

The Breakdown of Jordan’s 17th Parliament

The “new” parliament offers a depressingly familiar blend of former politicians, elite families, wealthy individuals and journalists, who all managed to exploit tribal voting patterns. These are not fresh faces: of the 150 deputies, over one-third (57) are not new to parliament — 32 served in the 16th parliament and the remainder in the two preceding parliaments. Some of these veterans have records of bribery and have shown willingness to surrender to government efforts to curtail freedom of expression in order to sideline investigations into corruption. There are 19 female deputies, or 12% of the house, in the new parliament, a fact due largely to the recently instituted quota for women (the National Constituency lists were only “decorated” with women, mostly placing them in unrealistic spots). Only two of them made it in to Parliament through open contestation. Interestingly, one of the new female deputies is a Bedouin woman from the south, who will be the first Jordanian legislator to appear on the floor in full niqab.

But beyond these small changes, what may be most significant is the shift in Palestinian representation, up from 12 MPs to 32 in the new house. These numbers give Palestinians approximately 20% of the total MPs – a proportion of such heights not seen since the exceptional parliament of 1989. Some of the Palestinian deputies come from constituencies that trace their origins in Hebron and Be’er Sheva, securing their election by taking advantage of their own tribal affiliations. Clearly, tribalism and nepotism were the main winners of these elections: close to half the deputies represent a small number of families, clans, tribes and tribal coalitions. For the first time in Jordanian history, two wealthy Palestinian-Jordanian brothers will serve simultaneously in parliament. One of the two, a veteran legislator considered the “voice” of the refugee camps, once again secured the most votes of any candidate. A small number of impressive politicians, public figures and social activists were, in fact, able to secure seats, among their number the chairman of the teachers’ union. These types of candidates managed to make it into parliament despite conservatives’ efforts, though it remains overwhelmingly unlikely that they will be able to change the overall character of the parliament in which they sit.

The biggest losers of the elections were — undoubtedly and unsurprisingly — the candidates on the National Constituency lists. The original purpose of such lists was to create a kernel of political cohesion, in keeping with King ‘Abdullah’s vision, that would be based on platforms and ideologies. But the conservative elite mutilated the law in an attempt to cripple the national lists and parties, imposing regulations, ceilings and voting procedures that denuded them of any real meaning. This election saw a total of 61 lists competed for the quota of 27 seats. After the voting, a full 22 lists were represented in these 27 seats. Only one list won three seats, three others won two seats each, and 18 lists secured just a single seat. Four of the 27 seats are held by Palestinians — whose list identifies with Fatah, the only list to stress its Palestinian character.

The ultimate failure of these lists was made apparent by the fact the results were no different than those in the one vote system. The calculation for the quota seats was tremendously complex and clearly intended to prevent the emergence of parliamentary factions with any cohesive platform and ideology. The counting and calculation of national seats took hours and delayed the publication of the final election results by 48 hours, arousing public suspicion and anger. When the results were finally published, the unrepresentative nature of the system became all too clear: A list that secured 100,000 votes received two seats, while a list that won just 13,000 votes secured one seat. A scuffle erupted regarding the identity of the last deputy to be elected in the national list after the Elections Committee was unable to produce a formula consistent with the number of votes. Eventually one of the candidates gallantly surrendered his seat in favor of a woman candidate from a left-wing list. The convoluted process of finalizing the national lists, which lasted a couple of weeks, reaffirmed the popular notion that Jordan had been witness to a mere “election theater.”

Predictably, the disappointment of several unsuccessful candidates and their supporters (and sometimes the joy of the winners) translated into large-scale commotion throughout the Kingdom for several days. Public buildings were torched as demonstrators in the Transjordanian periphery shouted slogans against the regime and called for the overthrow of the king. “Loyal” supporters of the regime from the bands of thugs that, over the past two years, have “taken to the streets to defend the regime,” mutated overnight into sworn opponents of the system, shouting slogans such as “Long live Hamza Mansour!” (Mansour is the leader of the MB’s Islamic Action Front).

The greatest disappointment was that of longstanding regime stalwarts who failed to secure election, such as the former speaker of parliament ‘Abdul Hadi al-Majali, the sole successful candidate of the biggest Transjordanian national list. After several days of provocative comments directed, in part, at the regime, the list announced that Majali will resign and that it will scale back its activities throughout the kingdom. Though the regime recently attempted to consolidate its alliance with the Majali tribe, ‘Abdul Hadi appears to have lost much of his erstwhile charm. In political terms, his party’s flop is an earthquake, indicating the collapse of the Transjordanian political center and its disappearance from parliamentary politics. Together with the falling turnout among the Transjordanian population, this development increases the likelihood that the Transjordanian population will drift farther from institutionalized politics.

The Day After: Between the Muslim Brothers and the Monarchy

Toward the end of January the post-election political storm abated and the public returned to its usual apathy, fulfilling the prediction of the ECI chairman that “the people will gradually adapt to the [election] results”. The regime turned its attention to domestic damage control, comfortable that it had projected its “democratization” to the outside world. But the domestic costs were high: The government was compelled to grant consolation prizes to the opposition, leaking to the press that the King was determined to gradually relinquish some of his powers, albeit only by means of shifting political norms and not necessarily anchoring the change in law.

In a closed briefing with reporters on the eve of the elections, the Prime Minister revealed that the King was ready to waive some of his powers, particularly his prerogative to appoint the prime minister, but would not amend the relevant articles in the Jordanian constitution. This statement met with limited public interest, as most Jordanians did not take it seriously. One senior commentator took the opportunity to emphasize that “a genuine constitutional monarchy has become an objective requirement for the survival of the regime and its continuation through inheritance.”

In international media interviews later in January, the King adopted more cautious, though similar line. He claimed that Jordan has embarked on a “pilot project of parliamentary government,” but added that, “several parliamentary rounds will be needed in order to ensure that the system develops alongside the development of political parties.” He clarified that in the next elections the prime minister will be appointed “in consultation” with the parliamentary factions, and he will appoint his ministers in consultation with parliament. King ‘Abdullah insisted that Jordan is a constitutional monarchy in which the king’s power has historically been limited. He frankly acknowledged how “my son will not inherit the same monarchy that I inherited”, and in closed meetings with political figures, he even spoke about a “new monarchist regime.” These comments again met with little public interest. Jordanians must have grinned in irony when they heard their king complain to the international media about how “90% of the citizens of Jordan still take a negative view of political parties.”

King ‘Abdullah knows full well that the current Election Law, adopted in the whirlwind of the Arab Spring, is problematic. Reportedly, he told Western representatives that the law should be amended in keeping with the recommendations of the National Dialogue Committee. The regime itself has shelved these recommendations since last year, but perhaps the king believes that now that the recalcitrant conservatives have secured the parliament they wanted, he may be in a better position to amend the law ahead of the next elections in four years time. Yet in order to accomplish this kind of reform, ‘Abdullah needs to pave the way for the MB’s return to the political game.

There has also been some expectation that after the elections the regime might compensate the MB in the form of appointments to the Senate, and possibly even ministerial positions, but the MB itself has publicly stated that it will reject what it sees as such insulting consolation prizes. The relations between the MB and the regime have become so tense in the wake of the Brotherhood’s election boycott that media reports speculated that representatives of the regime had threatened the MB leadership with dismantling the organization altogether. Only after the elections was the regime able to adopt a softer and more conciliatory tone. The King himself declared that the decisions of both sides regarding the elections belong in the past. Moreover, he has said that he asked the MB to resume its role as “part of the political process.” A minister from the left-wing also made overtures, forwarding the MB an apology in which he retracted his accusations that the movement was seeking to overthrow the regime.

The regime is attempting to treat the MB with the generosity of the victorious, an approach that is unlikely to encourage the Brotherhood to swallow its pride. This is particularly true as King ‘Abdullah continues to insist that the popularity of the MB in Jordan and elsewhere is on the decline, and that “their strength and number are not great.” To make matters worse, the first post-elections governmental appointment appears to have been a deliberate slight to the MB: Fayez a-Tarawneh, the former prime minister and chief of the royal court, considered an old school conservative and anti-Islamist, was reappointed as chief of court (though the appointment was probably based on complex considerations regarding the identity of the next speaker of parliament). In any case, the MB officially announced that it does not intend to acquiesce any potential regime initiative to appoint Senate representatives on its behalf, and will continue to demand “a comprehensive change of political conduct and of the political game.” As in the past, the MB made cunning use of King Abdullah’s declarations to the international media. They have argued that while the king may indeed wish to bequeath a “different monarchy” to his son, the conservative elite has shown itself to be more monarchist than ‘Abdullah himself.

The message conveyed by both the regime and the MB is that neither is as yet willing to climb down the tree: The regime has hinted it may bolster the Islamic Center Party as an official, participating political counterweight to the MB, while the MB has complicated its position by publicly declaring that it is only a matter of time until the revolution “arrives in Jordan” and that “the Islamic state is on its way.” Such declarations not only cloud the MB’s relations with the regime but also have been shown to be a source of concern for broad segments of the Jordanian public, leading to disquiet in the ranks of the MB itself.

This situation epitomizes the recent shift in the MB’s image around the Middle East, particularly against the background of the developments in Tunisia and Egypt. To date, the Jordanian regime has successfully exploited this shift for its own purposes. However, the question remains: As the struggle between the Jordanian conservative elite and the Muslim Brotherhood continues, what price will Jordan ultimately be forced to pay for its everlasting political stalemate.

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