Jordan: Parliamentary Elections Amid Growing Challenges

Jordan’s Independent Election Commission has confirmed that parliamentary elections will be held on November 10. However, they are poised to take place in exceptional circumstances resulting from the coronavirus pandemic, economic difficulties and social unrest – particularly over tensions between teachers and the government. All of this has overshadowed the elections, impacting alliances and rivalries, amid growing calls for a boycott or postponement.

Elections are, in principle, a constitutional entitlement. Jordan’s constitution mandates elections to be held every four years, in the four months preceding the end of the current parliament’s term (which expires in September). The exception is when circumstances preclude this, such as measures to combat coronavirus, which changed this year’s constitutional deadlines. This year, the elections will be held in accordance with the updated electoral law, which governed the 2016 elections. It combines the list system with a ‘one-vote’ law, where voters choose from several candidate lists, before voting for one, or a number of candidates, from that list.

The 130 seats in the House of Representatives are typically contested by a large number of candidates, the vast majority of which belong to clans or regions, rather than to political or partisan groups. In reality, no political forces have any real influence among the public, with the exception of Islamic Action Front. Competition is usually intense between candidates, along clan or regional lines, instead of political or partisan considerations. For this reason, the elections often mainly produce independent parliamentarians. This is not a problem in itself; however, successive parliaments have generally been characterized by poor performance and have therefore lost the confidence of the people. They have failed to respond to citizens’ concerns; many representatives show no concern for providing services or fulfilling the needs of the people as promised, other than when discussing re-election.

This year’s elections for Jordan’s nineteenth parliament face complex challenges, the most important of which are:

First, the coronavirus outbreak. It is still unclear how the elections will be held, as the virus continues to spread. Since the beginning of August, Jordan has seen a remarkable increase in the number of local infections. There are real fears of a serious outbreak, particularly amid confusion and declining confidence in official measures to control the virus, despite Jordan initially being among the most successful in terms of global efforts to limit its spread. This is a real problem, particularly at this point, when face-to-face meetings and gatherings between candidates and their electoral bases typically take place almost daily. Despite the importance of the directives issued by the Election Commission, ensuring compliance is not easy. These instructions include cancelling electoral events and reducing the number of attendees at election headquarters, not only to curb the spread of the virus, but to control electoral bribery or corruption, which is one of the worst manifestations of parliamentary life in Jordan.

The second issue is a reluctance to vote and calls to boycott. Fear of the coronavirus outbreak is not the only challenge to the House of Representatives elections. They include growing calls, not only for postponement, but to boycott the elections altogether. These calls do not come from Islamist movements, as is usually the case. Islamists, with their two branches, the Muslim Brotherhood and Islamic Action Front, have not yet decided on whether to participate in the elections or boycott them; there are in fact calls, within both groups, for participation. Boycotts achieve nothing and leave parliament open to those who do not prioritize the interests of the people or the country, caring only about preserving their gains, often at the expense of the nation and its citizens. The calls for a boycott have in fact come from pro-regime tribal forces and other groups within society.

Calls for election boycotts are not new in the history of Jordan’s parliamentary elections. In fact, the only exception was the elections held in 1989, where the Islamist movement won nearly half of the parliamentary seats, which at that time amounted to eighty seats. All subsequent election cycles have seen calls for a boycott. This can be attributed to a variety of factors, the most important of which is the change in electoral law, which approved the one-vote system. For many observers, the change delivered less representation, or, more clearly, constrained the Islamists. Previously, electoral law gave every citizen the right to a number of votes in proportion to the number of constituency seats, allowing citizens to vote for more than one candidate. This system clearly favored the Islamist movement, however, since the enforcement of the new law in the 1993 elections, chances of Islamists gaining seats in parliament have weakened.

Moreover, this is not the only implication of the new law, which was meant to contribute to developing parliamentary life, not hold it back. It has consolidated a clans-based approach, intensifying competition between members of the same tribe or region. This has caused an unnatural separation that has led to disagreements and sometimes conflict. As a result, Jordanians have found themselves victims of disputes that affect their lives within the tribe, region, country, family and home. At times this has incited hatred and resentment. It comes as no surprise when we hear of situations that escalate to the point where weapons are used.

In fact, the problem runs deep. It relates to principles that continue to govern the nomination and election process. Despite remarkable scientific and social development in Jordan, what can be termed as ‘political illiteracy’ remains. This illiteracy does not relate to the traditional concept of knowledge. It can be argued that Jordan has a widespread culture of constitutional rights and duties, and the recognition of right and wrong. Instead, it relates to concepts that form the basis of candidate selection. Clan-based thinking continues to govern the behavior of candidates, as well as voters. This does not mean that an approach based on clans is negative; it has many advantages. In fact, it is one of the most significant societal engines able to define individual values, especially cohesion, solidarity, benevolence, generosity and the principle of fair regional representation. The problem lies in applying these principles, particularly when the individuals involved are unqualified in many of these aspects, as is often the case, whether they govern by clan consensus or at the national or regional level. Of course, this does not mean that there are no capable or experienced candidates. There are many, however, because of social considerations and personal relationships, the selection process is not usually based on competence, but on clan consensus and status. This is in addition to a lack of other characteristics needed in those who play a leading role in public affairs and undertake major tasks, such as legislating, enacting laws, monitoring executive authority and serving the public interest.

All of this has led to a loss of confidence in the parliament. Jordanian voters believe their representatives have failed to perform the legislative, supervisory or even public service duties for which they were elected. Instead, they provide cover for unpopular policies and decisions. Many Jordanians blame the parliament for its stance on the crisis between teachers and the government, believing it did not play a constructive role in resolving the crisis. Instead of easing tensions, or mediating to resolve the crisis, the parliament took a position that many considered to be against the teachers.

Jordan’s elections are being held in exceptional circumstances. The electoral contest will play out, as has happened previously, along clan and regional lines. The new electoral law has failed to bring about real change to the mentality of voters, in terms of a fresh perspective on who can truly represent the nation, instead of dominant personal, factional, tribal and regional interests.