Jordanian elections: Fair in form, feeble in substance

 

Photo: REUTERS/Muhammad Hamed.

 

 

Jordanian elections: Fair in form, feeble in substance

By Ahmad Abu Khalil

It took a 3.5-month period between officially declaring the date for holding the elections of the 19th House of Representatives in Jordan and the actual implementation of these elections on 10 November 2020. In the ideal case, such a political event should have brought forward a period of national debate regarding major issues concerning Jordan both on the internal and external levels. Similar to other countries in the region, Jordan is facing an endless list of major issues, such as the urgent and exacerbating health conditions resulting from the COVID-19 pandemic, the worsening economic and developmental conditions, and the rising rates of unemployment and poverty, not to mention the constantly deteriorating political situation on the regional and international levels.

However, it was found that these issues were completely absent from the public debate during the preparation for the elections on the popular level, both on the level of individuals, groups and social and regional components and also among the Jordanian political parties; which are about 50 registered parties distributed among the various political spectrums and currents (from the far left to the far right).

Despite the official insistence and reaffirmation on enhancing this event by presenting it as a constitutional entitlement that was held in due time in light of the impediments, and in spite of the media campaigns that constantly focused on this event’s great significance, the public debate that accompanied the various stages of the electoral process was pushing people towards sub-topics related to narrow agendas – such as individual, kinship or regional circles – with a few exceptions who expressed themselves modestly and hesitatingly. Even the political parties’ candidates generally found themselves compelled to submit to the conditions that were governing the performance of their electoral campaigns.

Whoever was walking in the streets of Amman and other major Jordanian cities during the month that preceded election day noticed two types of promotional campaigns: The first type was the official advertisements of the Independent Election Commission (IEC), which placed “dignified” and serious headings and slogans related to democracy, national and public interests, and legislative and oversight issues. On the other hand, there were the candidates’ advertisements carrying their large-sized photos printed in good quality with their name and surname, and sometimes with a motto that rarely attracts anyone’s attention.

The scene was funny to a large extent, where the Independent Election Commission (IEC) quickly occupied the important sites in the streets; and especially at major intersections. So when it was time to officially and legally carry out the electoral campaigns of the candidates in the month that preceded election day, the candidates could not find any free places except those which were opposite to or surrounded by the IEC’s ads. These two types of advertisements were clearly seen together, and one could effortlessly notice their diverging contents.

The Independent Election Commission (IEC) was established in 2012 as part of the political reforms that followed the wide-scale popular protests in that year. Its formation was a declaration of the departure of the government (i.e. executive authority) and its services from the task of supervising the elections for ensuring their integrity. The IEC administered the House of Representatives elections for the first time in 2013, as well as supervising the elections of 2016 and a number of other elections for different local councils.

It is a clear fact that the Independent Election Commission (IEC) developed its work and experience during these years, and it succeeded in projecting an image of real independence. Stories about cases of its interference in the elections were merely confined to unofficial narratives that were difficult to prove, and they remained within the framework of common rumours at different levels. However, rumours in Jordan are quite capable of creating a public impression and affecting the levels of trust.

During the preparation for the 2020 elections, the IEC was exceptionally keen on maintaining its good performance, and it adopted various measures to enhance that image. Therefore, the IEC attained a general recognition regarding its integrity in managing the electoral process. It should also be noted that the mission of the IEC has been specified by the law, which prevents it from intervening in the electoral contents that are governed by the laws of public and political freedoms.

This means that the IEC is not responsible for the contents of the electoral debate (which were mentioned in the introduction of this article), as well as not being responsible for any contradiction between the contents of the IEC’s promotional campaigns as an official body and the electoral campaigns of the candidates.

This has a story in Jordan that could be summarized as follows:

Parliamentary life was rejuvenated in 1989 after it was absent since the 1967 war (which led to the suspension of parliamentary life). This was re-introduced after a flood of Jordanian popular protests known as the “April Protests” or “Ma’an and the South Protests” (since they started in that region). Elections were held in that atmosphere, accompanied by a political breakthrough and the return of political party life. Therefore, the 11th House of Representatives was elected in 1989, with clear political features for both the loyalists and the opposition.

As the date of the subsequent elections of 1993 drew nearer, the society was surprised by a radical change in the electoral law. Experts were hired to propose a law aimed at preventing the formation of an influential parliamentary bloc that could turn into a force of pressure. This was achieved through the “one vote” formula, which obliged candidates to run their electoral campaigns on their own, i.e. individually. In subsequent electoral cycles, changes were made in laws and instructions to confirm and strengthen the individuality element, in parallel with the constant reduction in the size of electoral districts to turn the electoral competition into narrow districts within the framework of a clan, sub-clan, village or area of origin (and especially for the citizens of Palestinian descent who considered themselves a “clan” by transforming their area of origin into a “kinship relationship”).

Meanwhile, campaigns were launched against the concept of “political representative” and “slogan representative” in favor of “service representative”, whereas the departure from politics in the general sense became a declared slogan that “attracted” votes. It was seen that the candidates were becoming more inclined towards narrower circles of belonging in each election, and power and money were occupying a greater role in determining the nominated candidates.

Between any two electoral cycles, the society felt the negative impact of the law on the whole political community at various levels. Large clans were torn apart, neighbouring villages were dispersed and had to find a formula for alliance or the division of roles between population groups, and there was the spread of the phenomenon of tribal or regional “groups”. Moreover, “negative” forms of nomination were introduced to “withdraw” the opponents’ votes or reduce their chances of success, and the phenomenon of “defiance candidate” emerged, along with its associated practices.

Even the political parties were no longer able to present their candidates under their party name. Hence, the representative bodies later disclosed the party affiliation of some winning candidates because the candidate’s circle of social affiliation highlighted his personal identity during the electoral campaign and did not allow his identity to be overshadowed by his party’s identity. Therefore, a political party’s candidate became obliged to run his electoral campaign according to the terms of his constituency. Moreover, candidates were oftentimes required to publicly specify their priority between their political party and their clan.

This greatly affected the performance of representative bodies and the relationship among their members and also with the executive authority. Consequently, it led to a decline in the public trust vis-à-vis the House of Representatives as an institution, with a paradox that turned into something like schizophrenia or ambivalence. While the society generally declares its lack of trust in the House of Representatives as an institution, the individual voter and groups of voters continue to line up behind their “representative” who is seen as one of them and is usually re-elected (or the election of another person similar to him). The “electoral process” has been separated from the “parliamentary issue” as a whole, and each of them started moving apart from each other. For example, the competition takes place with completely different goals and objectives from the requirements of the parliamentary process (which has more of a legislative, oversight and political task).

Different parties realized the negative role of the “one vote” formula in leading to this conundrum, hence this formula came to an end before the elections of the 18th House of Representatives in 2016, where the various parties took a firm position to dispose of the “one vote” formula. However, their thought was directed this time towards the “open lists” format on the level of constituencies. The Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan was divided into 23 districts, with different numbers of seats based on the number of residents as a general principle. The nomination was done through lists, where the voter exercises his/her right to vote in two steps: First, s/he chooses a list, and then s/he chooses the preferred candidates from within that list.

After a short period from changing the law, the voters subjected it to their social terms, which led to the formation of lists that are based on one strong candidate who allies with other candidates that turn into competitors after registering that list. Therefore, the candidates are allies in the first step and opponents in the second one, which in turn brings us back to the “one vote” formula. Soon afterwards, the electoral language started including the term “filling” to refer to the secondary candidates in the lists, and it has become commonplace for the main candidate to finance the campaign and in some cases to pay for the nomination of his allies in the list.

It is the first time in which two consecutive elections are held under the same law. This is because the formula of the law that was adopted in 2016 has not changed until this point in time (2020), and this helped in gaining some experience to further understand the details of running for elections in an elaborate manner. This also explains the increase in the number of lists and number of candidates in this electoral cycle, whereas a large number of candidates saw that they are capable of being “heads of lists” and to look for their own “fillings” instead of them being “fillings” for others. In the previous elections, some male candidates fell in the trap of allying with main female candidates, six of whom managed to win seats by equal competition, and sometimes at the expense of the strong male candidate who formed his list after the latter thought that having a strong female candidate in his list would not affect him. This year’s elections also saw the formation of women-only lists – in which a main female candidate was selected – but the results were disappointing because the female candidates only obtained the quota seats assigned to them by the law. Moreover, women lost the six seats that they obtained by equal competition in the previous elections.

It is also evident that the special circumstances related to the measures for combatting COVID-19 led to reducing the costs of electoral campaigns, hence increasing the number of candidates.

During the holding of such elections on the popular level, there was no longer a need for any interventions to affect the content of the electoral process. Also, the mechanisms of the elections were automatically put in place. This is why the government was able to distance itself from the elections and the Independent Election Commission (IEC) was able to be truly independent and to manage the electoral process with real integrity. However, the practices that took place within the society led to a process of corruption. Is there, therefore, a “privatization” of the processes of controlling the electoral contents?

The paradoxes have reached such a level that the government this time insisted on the attendance of political parties and introduced a system for financing electoral campaigns, provided that the party members would be nominated by their party in a written and publicly declared manner and that the number of party candidates would not be less than six candidates distributed in at least three electoral districts. Consequently, more than 40 political parties presented their candidates, whose number reached more than 400 candidates in different electoral districts. Moreover, the Ministry of Political Affairs even supported these candidates with free ads in the form of good quality videos!

Does this mean that the executive authority and the various state security agencies and other parties were truly remote and neutral?

This leads us to the circulated “rumours” that are often mentioned with strength and confidence, but their proof would need a complicated investigation. There was the spread of some strong and unofficially declared stories about some interventions to prevent certain persons from being nominated, as well as interventions to ask for the nomination of other persons. Moreover, according to these rumours, there was the appointment of some personalities who announced their intention to run for elections or were actually nominated in high-level positions equivalent to a parliamentary position – such as within a ministry or the Senate – and this may be one of the unwritten traditions of Jordan’s political administration.

After the final elections results came out, several assessments confirmed that the House of Representatives is mainly comprised of independent individuals, 100 of whom have entered the House of Representatives for the first time. Also, the share of the parties was modest even compared to the previous House of Representatives. The Islamic Action Front (a branch of the Muslim Brotherhood) won 6 seats out of a total of 16 seats for all parties. In general, each list obtained one seat, except for the women’s quota seats and the Christian and Circassian seats whose success does not affect the main candidate in the list.

The discussion that followed the announcement of the winners’ names showed that there were doubts regarding the House of Representatives before its convening and inaugural session. These doubts were particularly enhanced due to behavior that violated the instructions for combatting COVID-19 and the holding of celebrations that included the shooting of gunfire. This sparked a wide-scale wave of criticism and led to the resignation of the Minister of Interior for ش presumed negligence. The doubts were also augmented as a result of the low rate of electoral participation compared to all previous elections.

At the beginning of the article, we highlighted a spectrum of important issues facing the society and the state, and which should never be excluded from the public debate between electoral cycles. What role should the House of Representatives occupy in these discussions? Regardless of the answer, the elections are only one field of social conflict in all societies, including Jordanian ones.


Ahmad Abu Khalil is a Jordanian writer and anthropologist, who focuses on issues of poverty, development, and Jordanian social history. He is the founder of “Al-Mastour” magazine, which is specialized in the issue of poverty (2005-2012). He is the editor-in-chief of the website “Your Time … Yesterday’s Story”, which focuses on the past (http://www.zamancom.com).

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Rosa Luxemburg Stiftung is one of the major institutions of political education in the Federal Republic of Germany. It serves as a forum for debate and critical thinking about political alternatives, as well as a research center for progressive social development. It is closely affiliated to the German Left Party (DIE LINKE). The Rosa Luxemburg Stiftung Regional Office of Palestine and Jordan has supported partners in Palestine since 2000, and established the Regional Office in Ramallah in 2008. Today, the office is in charge of project cooperation with partners in the West Bank, East Jerusalem and the Gaza Strip, as well as in Jordan.

Rosa Paper is a collection of analyses and relevant viewpoints irregularly published by the Rosa Luxemburg Stiftung Regional Office of Palestine and Jordan. The content of Rosa Papers is the sole responsibility of the author and does not necessarily reflect the position of Rosa Luxemburg Stiftung.

 

 

 

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