Jordanian Parliamentary Elections – a Breakthrough or just a Routine?

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Elections_3Since the onset of the Arab Spring two years ago, Jordan has been a scene of over 8,600 demonstrations (most of them non-violent) during which the street demanded political reforms (amendment of the discriminating electoral system in particular) and fight with omnipresent corruption, economic inequities and social injustice. Although the regime’s overthrow has never been considered a feasible option, the anti-monarchy resentments noted a peak on the eve of mid-November riots which came as a response to the government’s decision to lift fuel subsidies. Leaving it all aside, however, now Jordan is preparing for a parliamentary battle to take place on 23rd January with King Abdullah II himself calling upon the citizens to help build the democratic system in, what it seems to be, the last mainstay of relative stability in the Middle East. Are the elections about to bring a considerable change or will they be yet another symptom of the façade democracy? [1]

Election campaign in JordanFot.: A. Malantowicz

Election campaign in Jordan
Fot.: A. Malantowicz

In September 2011, after a few months of public debate, the Constitution of the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan was amended, for the first time since 1984. Above all, the amendments provided for establishment of the Independent Election Commission (Art. 67) and the Constitutional Court (Art. 58-61), both being a novum in Jordanian political system. The former was launched in May 2012 and gained legal framework in the form of Election Law 2012 passed in the parliament two months later. Accordingly, king Abdullah II dissolved the assembly in October 2012 and called for early elections to be held at the beginning of 2013.

Amman's Downtown few days before the elections

Amman’s Downtown few days before the elections

Henceforth the monarch became actively involved in promoting the royal vision for reform, initially presented in an interview with two major newspapers – Al Rai and The Jordan Times – in early December. King Abdullah outlined his roadmap, in which the forthcoming elections were meant to become a crucial milestone initiating the majority-based parliamentary governments in Jordan, therefore setting the basis for a real constitutional monarchy. The elections’ aftermath, in the king’s words, was to “implant the four-year rule in our political system and culture” – a phenomenon almost like political fiction in Jordanian reality as only in the last two years four different prime ministers governed the country. Consequently, with the end of the year the first of the series of royal discussion papers was issued under the perspicuous title “Our journey to forge our path towards democracy” in order to “stimulate debate among citizens about the most important issues we face as a country”. No more, no less, king Abdullah encouraged Jordanians to become active citizens, full of mutual respect and able to maintain constant dialogue as well as to seek the government’s accountability. The second piece – “Making our democratic system work for all Jordanians” – was published just a few days ago and aims to describe the transition to a parliamentary government where the prime minister’s designation is “based on consultation with the majority coalition of parliamentary blocs”. Rightfully, the monarch emphasized the need of “emergence of the national parties” and going through “several parliamentary cycles to develop and mature” the political system. I strongly believe, and most analysts would probably agree with me, that the Jordanian society needs to mature as well. The pre-election period has proved that high level of corruption, vote-buying and selling joined by voting along tribal links, not political programmes, predominates the social fabric of Jordan.

New Electoral Law

Although the election law was recently reformed, the commonly criticized one-man one-vote system (Single Non-Transferable Vote, SNTV) remained a significant part of the new regulations. Highly discriminating political parties and favouring minorities, the SNTV is used only in a few countries in the whole world, Jordan included. Out of all 150 seats in the parliament, 108 will be allocated on the basis of SNTV (this number includes seats reserved for minorities: 9 – Christians, 3 – Chechen/Circassian and 9 – Bedouins), further 27 will become a stage of national competition based on a proportional representation system and the remaining 15 seats constitute the women quota. Each citizen is eligible to cast two votes – one for the local and one for the national list. [2]

For the first time the entire electoral process –the registration of voters and candidates’ registration, campaign and the poll itself – is prepared and supervised by the Independent Election Commission (IEC), unlike previously by the Ministry of Interior. Even though the commission is independent in its name only – the king appointed all members of the Chamber of Commissioners from among former government officials – it pursues its tasks with unprecedented determination so that the elections are conducted with the highest level of fairness and transparency possible in accordance with the international standards. In the past month the IEC took under scrutiny, charged, fined and detained many of the (not)-to-be MPs for keeping voter identification cards, vote buying and forging, and several procedural violations which all are punishable under the new Election Law.

Election campaign in Jordan

Election campaign in Jordan

Sadly, reports on electoral infringements come to light almost every single day and undoubtedly the majority of them remain under the surface – hitherto gifts, donations and assistance from parliament candidates were basic elements of the campaign. Even now many citizens do not see any contradiction in selling their votes – as some of them confessed to the media, “this is the only way they can benefit from the runners for the elections as they do not expect them to do a good job handling lawmaking and monitoring the executive authority”. The implementation of the democratic ideas of free and fair competition is also far from perfect, a proof of which came with the recent case of a woman divorced by her husband in the midst of election campaign as she constituted a challenge to her spouse’s relative also running in the elections.

Largely missing from the campaign is a serious debate on Jordan’s needs and ways to tackle the problems of its growing economic concerns, energy dependency, young generation’s frustration or poverty. What dominates the posters and fliers all around the cities are simply slogans of fighting corruption and unemployment which gives the electorate a vague idea of the runners’ social and political agendas. Neither is any real opposition force involved at this stage of electoral process – the Islamic Action Front (Muslim Brotherhood’s political wing), followed by some minor leftist parties, opted out of the election race blaming the regime for a slow pace of reform and bigoted election law.

International Context

Jordan’s domestic political scene is not separable from international and regional affairs. Firstly, the monarchy’s stability lies at the core interest of the United States, probably more than ever before in its history – being a reliable partner and a buffer zone between Israel and a hostile Arab world makes Jordan a strategic and not-to-lose asset for the Americans. It is via Amman how Washington reaches into regional terrorist networks – the Jordanian Mukhabarat (General Intelligence Directorate) is commonly seen as one of the key CIA’s  key collaborators. One should not expect the US letting this particular element of the status quo’s shift. Consequently, the monarchy is closely following the ongoing parliamentary elections in Israel and its possible outcome for the Israeli-Palestinian peace process, in which Jordan incessantly plays a significant role. The Palestinian UN bid for statehood, recent revival of the Jordan-Palestine confederation idea and full restoration of diplomatic relations with Israel in October 2012 rule out any idea of the anti-normalization forces coming to power after the elections.

The events taking place in Egypt and Syria have also left their trace on Jordanian land – both in the streets and inside the royal palace. Even though the Islamic Action Front is boycotting the elections, now it would possibly count on much lesser popular support than only a few months ago. A clear pattern emerges from the conversations with my Jordanian colleagues: the fear that the Islamists in Jordan would not be willing to share power, once taking a grip on it, mounted significantly after the December’s constitutional struggle under Mursi. The Syrian Civil War, on the other hand, constitutes the biggest current security threat for Jordanian regime – the possible spill over of the conflict, continuing massive influx of the refugees (estimated at more than 300,000 up to date) along with terrorist activity made Jordanian elites very cautious about further developments in Damascus. Both crises also have a moderating impact on the public opinion in Jordan – you can hardly meet a Jordanian citizen who would like to see the violence escalate in the streets and for that particular reason a lot of them are willing to remain in the status quo. Not without importance is the huge financial assistance from the Gulf countries ($5 billion to be provided over a period of five years) which helps Jordan mitigate its serious economic burden, principally noticeable in November last year.

Quo Vadis Jordan?

In his interview a while ago king Abdullah II remarked that “there’s no final destination on the reform path. Reform is a process.” The majority of Jordanians whom I have recently encountered seem to support such position. Even if they granted the regime a certain level of trust, they are not truly endorsing the electoral process which is commonly perceived as not credible due to the endless violations taking place on a daily basis. That is why many refrain from active participation in the elections, preferring to stay on the side, watching and waiting for the outcome.

And what possible outcome may tomorrow bring? Undoubtedly the reform process is set on a right track and I cannot see it moving backward now. The balloting itself will not bring any spectacular change – nobody expects that – but yet it will be an important step on the road to finish with façade democracy in Jordan. Tomorrow, then, will shed some light on how far and how fast Jordan will move forward in the next days, months and years to come.

[1] The term façade democracy in case of Arab semi-democratic regimes is particularly accurate – Arabic word fas?d (????) denotes corruption.
[2] More detailed recent analysis of the current electoral system in Jordan see here and here.

Artur Malantowicz – Director of CII Asian Programme (since July 2012), works at the University of Warsaw (UW) where he is also a PhD student at the Faculty of Journalism and Political Science. Graduated from the Institute of International Relations UW (2011) and the Faculty of Geography and Regional Studies UW (2011) and in addition studied at the University of Kent in Canterbury (United Kingdom, 2008-09) and the University of Jordan (Jordan, 2012-13). Trainee at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Republic of Poland (2011) and the EU Delegation in Amman (2013).
Research interests: International relations of the Middle East, regional security aspects in the Middle East (e.g. Arab-Israeli conflict, peace process, the Palestinian refugees), foreign policy of the Arab states, the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan (history, political system, foreign policy and the democratization process), superpowers’ policy towards the Middle East.

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Artur Malantowicz

Middle East Expert w Centre for International Initiatives
PhD in Political Science (2016). Research interests: International relations of the Middle East, regional security aspects in the Middle East (e.g. Arab-Israeli conflict, peace process, the Palestinian refugees), foreign policy of the Arab states, the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan (history, political system, foreign policy and the democratisation process). Contact: artur.malantowicz(at)

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