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Jordan election: Change was never on the ballot paper Open in fullscreen

Fadi al-Qadi

Jordan election: Change was never on the ballot paper

The new electoral system has promoted fragmentation and division within the same list [Getty]

Date of publication: 22 September, 2016

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Comment: Jordan's electoral process is a political space in decline, where representation remains very narrow, and deputies have no capacity to alter the balance of power, writes Fadi al-Qadi

There have been no surprises, no heartaches and no steps forward after Jordan's parliamentary elections on 20th September, which have offered a somewhat dehydrated political process for Jordanian voters.

Celebrating the democracy-building benefits of an election process is increasingly difficult in the country - a declining political space. In fact, there are probably no benefits, to speak of, in such an environment. The process is limited to a narrow level of representation, but with no capacity to alter the balance of power, or to challenge it.

In fact, the (albeit limited) constitutional "powers" given to Jordan's elected deputies are shared equally with a non-elected House of Senates, whose members are appointed by the King - the holder of all key powers within the state.

At best, Jordan's general elections may offer a method of representation for citizens. But even that is questionable. In 2016, these elections are for the 18th lower house of parliament (the upper is the Senate), and a new electoral law was presented in 2015 to pave the way for this round of voting.

The 17th and 16th lower houses were each organised based on different editions of the law. Every time a new electoral law is enacted, criticism of its capacity to guarantee equal and just representation marks the debate around it. Issues related to representation of Jordanians of Palestinian origin, women and Christians have always been common features of this debate.

The new law enacted in 2105 produced a formula under which elections are organised around the concept of lists, replacing the previous system known as one-man-one-vote. But even under the new electoral system, voters can still give votes specifically to a chosen candidate among members of the same list.

It's unlikely that much attention was paid to how the new system performs in some of its aspects. It effectively proved to promote fragmentation and weakening of solid political movements, especially on the national level, by inspiring competition and division within the same list.

The first certain outcome of the elections is its low voter turnout

This resulted in a scattered and weak performance of lists across the country. The reason for this is simple: In any electoral district, there is more than one list. When people go to vote, they may not give votes to all members of the same list (or worse, block vote for other members on the list, to give better chances to their chosen candidate).

Eventually, results are calculated based on dividing the total number of actual voters by the number of allocated seats to the district, which produces a "threshold" for winning a seat in that district.

As preliminary results showed on Wednesday evening, it was nearly impossible for lists to bring total votes close to the threshold, while no list was able to win (on average) more than one seat in the district. Exceptions to that took place in one district to the south of the country where one large list won four seats.

It was nearly impossible for lists to bring total votes close to the threshold for winning a seat

The first certain outcome of the elections is its low voter turnout. Figures announced by the Independent Elections Commission - the country's statutory body responsible for supervision and administration of elections -  showed that immediately after the official end of voting on Tuesday evening, eligible voter turnout was around 36 percent (16 percent of Jordan's population).

While the overall number of registered eligible voters is around 4.1 million, around 1 million registered Jordanian voters (24 percent of those eligible) live outside the country and current electoral law gives them no means to participate in the electoral process.

However, opinion polls ahead of the elections, such as the one released by Jordan Centre for Strategic Studies three days before the voting day, estimated turnout at around 38% of eligible voters.

The second important observation, is that the Islamic movement in Jordan may not be as a strong an opposition movement as it has been in recent years. The Muslim Brotherhood affiliate Islamic Action Front (IAF) party ran for elections this year employing "new" tactics. Its principle strategy was to launch a major coalition that it named "National Coalition for Reform", which consisted of 20 electoral lists, bringing together more than 120 candidates, half of whom are non-members of the party.

It effectively proved to promote fragmentation and weakening of solid political movements, especially on the national level

IAF also aimed at scoring more than just political points, in engaging 19 female candidates, more than four Christian candidates, leftist candidates and independent political figures, including those who'd had ministerial jobs in the past.

While the IAF boycotted the past two elections protesting previous electoral law, its participation in this round of elections, even with its new "all-inclusive" approach to forming national lists, was not expected to give its candidates more chance of winning seats in the new parliament.

As preliminary results showed on Wednesday evening, the IAF was looking as though it would hold no more than 20-25 seats in the new parliament, effectively 15-19 percent of a total of 130 parliamentary seats.

Third outcome is the emergence of strong secular voices (and not necessarily a movement) that have performed very well in the third Amman district (where the political and financial elite is based). Preliminary results gave Maan list (together) two seats out of total six allocated to the district. Maan campaign was characterised with strong messages against radicalisation and exploiting religion, as well as advocating for principles of "civil state". 

While the administration performed very reasonably in terms of procedures and system implementation, it failed to prevent corrupt electoral practices such as vote-buying, attempts to obstruct voting process and the challenging of results by violent means. 

Ten ballot boxes, for example, were seized by force in the Central Bedouin District by unknown individuals. The Independent Elections Commission has not been able to retrieve them, and instead will organise a fresh poll for seats in that district.


Fadi Al-Qadi is Amman-based Middle East and North Africa human rights, civil society and media commentator. Twitter: @fqadi

Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff.

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