Jury still out on Jordanian elections

Parliamentary vote billed as step towards greater democracy, but critics say reforms have been too slow and shallow.

Anti-government protest in Jordan
Jordan's elections come in the wake of unrest following the government's decision to lift fuel subsidies [EPA]

In Jordan’s first elections since the Arab Spring, tribal leaders and independent businessmen won the bulk of seats in the country’s lower house of parliament in the wake of an Islamist-led boycott, according to preliminary results.

Jordan’s Independent Electoral Commission said the turnout in Wednesday’s elections was 56.6 percent, out of 2.3 million registered voters.

The groups that shunned the election – which was billed by the government as a step towards greater democracy – alleged that the actual figures were much lower.

The Muslim Brotherhood’s political arm, the Islamic Action Front (IAF), claimed turnout was just 17 percent, saying the government was trying to inflate the numbers to disguise the boycott’s effect.

However, Al Jazeera’s Stefanie Dekker reported from Zarqa – a city of one million east of the capital, Amman – that “the EU observer mission has largely given the day a thumbs-up”. David Martin, the head of the mission, said that despite some “small disturbances”, the team has “[seen] no real indication that anything’s going wrong with the whole process”.

 Jordanians vote for parliament amidst boycott


King Abdullah II called for early elections last October amid rising tensions and calls for reform in the country he rules.
Jordan’s economic woes have fuelled louder calls for reform. Last November, the government’s decision to lift fuel subsidies to reduce a gaping budget deficit caused prices to skyrocket. Thousands took to the streets in anger.

Clashes between security forces and demonstrators caused three deaths, dozens of injuries and at least 130 arrests. Amnesty International later published a report alleging some arrested individuals were subjected to torture and human rights abuses, charges Jordan’s government have vehemently denied.

Some demonstrators even blamed the king for the economic problems and called for his removal: a rare phenomenon in Jordan, where the monarch has long been considered to be above reproach.

‘Façade of participation’

Over the last two years, pressure from opposition groups and protesters has spurred a number of reforms. The elections were overseen by an Independent Electoral Commission rather than the Ministry of the Interior, and a greater number of seats were allocated for women and members of political parties. The king has agreed also to consult the parliament over his choice of prime minister for the first time.

But much of the opposition says the reforms have been both too slow and shallow.

One commentator called the elections “a façade of civil participation”. And prominent Jordanian blogger Naseem Tarawnah said the electoral reforms “[do] little to fix the essential problems inherent within the electoral system”, such as lack of proportional representation and weak political parties.

Parliamentary districts are gerrymandered in such a way that gives greater weight to Transjordanian voters – those whose ancestors were born in what is now Jordan – than to Palestinian Jordanians, who form the Brotherhood’s support base.

Slightly more than half of Jordan’s population is Palestinian or of Palestinian descent – but only a small minority of MPs are. In the 2010 elections, about 85 percent of the seats in parliament were won by Transjordanians.

The IAF, Jordan’s largest and best-organised opposition party, complained that the electoral law prevents them from gaining fair parliamentary representation. Dr Abdallah Farajallah, secretary general of the IAF, told Al Jazeera the parliament should be immune from being dissolved by the king, that the senate – whose members are all appointed by the king – should be abolished, and that MPs should compete “over party programmes, not on an individual, tribal or geographical basis”.

“We would have had no problem if our demands were dealt with in gradual steps,” he added, “but we should at least have a proper election law that would produce a parliament capable of taking care of all our demands”.

‘Local needs’

Jordanian Prime Minister Abdullah Ensour, in an interview to Al Jazeera, refuted criticisms about the voting system by comparing it to the US, where “[the state of] California, which has 54 million people, has two senators. And New Jersey, with just a few million people, also has two senators.”

“You have to fulfill local needs,” he said, though agreeing that Palestinian Jordanians “should have been offered more seats, and the coming parliament should consider this”.

Muhammed al-Bourini, a lawyer and political critic from Zarqa who counts himself as a member of the opposition, said the most important issues in the election were fighting corruption and favouritism.

“The results of the Arab Spring … has helped people in Jordan to say that maybe it’s better to maintain what we have and not rock the boat too much.”

– Nabil al-Sharif,  political columnist

But he opposed the election boycott organised by groups like the IAF. “They are trying to prevent people from participating in the election,” he said, in order to weaken the legitimacy of the government. “They want to show to the whole world that the system [in Jordan] is illegitimate.”

He accused parties like the IAF of hypocrisy: “They pretend to reject the electoral law despite the fact that they contested elections [in 2007] … under a worse law than the one today”.

Ensour said that the IAF made a fundamental mistake with the boycott, because “democracy is by making decisions in the parliament, not in the street. If you are not part of the parliament, how can you impose on the parliamentarians to amend parts of the Constitution and the laws the way you want them?”

‘A big step forward’

Some did see the election as a harbinger of change. Nabil al-Sharif, a political columnist for the Jordan Times who previously served as Jordan’s minister of media affairs, saw the elections as “a big step forward”.

“It doesn’t mean that we have reached the epitome of what we want, but we are headed in the right direction and we are achieving results,” Sharif told Al Jazeera. “Even the king said recently that the monarchy that his son will inherit will not be the same monarchy that the king has now, meaning that things are going to continue to progress.”

“The fact that the results of the Arab Spring did not bring out rosy results in Libya, Tunisia, and Egypt, has helped people in Jordan to say that maybe it’s better to maintain what we have and not rock the boat too much, because the alternative is not very exciting,” Sharif said. “Even the major political parties in Jordan, all of them have been calling for reform inside the regime – even the Muslim Brotherhood.”

For his part, Ensour dismissed the calls made against the king during some protests. “The opposition has never said they would bring down the system. They have never said that they want a revolution,” he said. “These are isolated voices; this is not how the country feels.”

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Source: Al Jazeera