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New Elections, Old Parliament

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February, 2013

By: Marwan Kardoosh

 

 

The Kingdom’s first parliamentary elections since the advent of the Arab Spring resulted in a mixed bag of outcomes. 

Given that registered voters had to still abide by the controversial single non-transferable vote rule at the district level, most of those who participated in the process ended up electing their tribal or family candidate, as opposed to contenders running on a political program. It is thus no surprise that tribal leaders and wealthy independent businessmen won the majority of seats in the Lower House once again, giving way to a parliament full of familiar names. Meanwhile, in what can be regarded as a positive development, two women won seats outside of the female quota. 

Overall, according to Jordan’s Independent Elections Commission (IEC), voter turnout stood at 56.5% out of the 2.3 million registered voters. A quick glance at the figures shows that urban areas recorded a 40% turnout rate, while Bedouin and tribal areas had an average turnout rate of 70%. The latter figure seems to be in line with past trends, emphasizing the over-representation of rural areas over the under-representation of the urban, which is what the law is designed to do in the first place.

That aside, the government’s decision to introduce voter registration, in a declared effort to reduce voter fraud, can be hailed an excellent strategy to prop up the turnout rate, which was eventually calculated out of the total number of people who “registered” as opposed to “eligible voters”. (An interesting point to make here is that with the Islamic Action Front (IAF) out of the equation, rendering most of those running for elections to be tribal figures and/or predominantly pro-government loyalists, the state had little to no reason to carry out any voter fraud.)

Though the turnout rate may be considered a disappointing result compared to what is normally attained in Western-type full-fledged democracies, the state has expectedly hailed it as a vote of confidence in the country’s political reform efforts. To no one’s surprise, allegations have since surfaced that the actual turnout was much lower, with the IAF claiming it was just 17%, accusing the government of trying to inflate the numbers to offset the effect of the boycott.

For their part, foreign observers praised the elections, saying there were no major violations. For example, the Washington-based National Democratic Institute (NDI), which had a delegation of 50 observers, said the elections showed a “marked improvement from past polls”, but also noted various shortcomings. Chief among these was “the unequal size of districts and an electoral system that amplifies family, tribal and national cleavages that [in turn] limit the development of a truly national legislative body and challenge King Abdullah’s stated aim of encouraging [a] full parliamentary government”. 

In a post-elections report, NDI outlined some interesting suggestions, including, but not confined to, strengthening the electoral framework. NDI’s delegation encountered a near consensus on the need to review the Elections Law to encourage political competition and the formation of coalitions as well as stronger political parties. The report also called for instituting financial disclosure requirements to help prevent voter fraud and limit the influence of political money. Lastly, it called for a clarification of the process of government formation. 

However, not everything went smoothly. The introduction of a closed national list upon which political parties can compete in a proportional system for 27 seats in parliament did not seem to go well. Specifically, allocation calculation proved difficult, and there seems to be a consensus among columnists and observers alike that there were problems and irregularities that forced a delayed announcement of winners leading to several recounts. 

Results show that 22 parties received seats in parliament, of which the Centrist Islamist party got three seats, with two other parties securing two seats each and the rest receiving just one. In essence, the calculation and distribution of these seats is part of deliberate state policy aimed at weakening the ability of any party or list to win a majority (e.g. the IAF had it participated). 

Public awareness also played a role. On December 23, that is only a few weeks before the elections, a survey that was published in the Jordan Times showed only 22% were aware they could vote for a national list, in addition to their traditional vote on the district level. The same survey also said 97.9% of respondents had no engagement with political parties. It is, therefore, safe to conclude that it is highly unlikely that the vast majority of Jordanians who voted for a national list were, in fact, fully aware of that list or what it stood for.

In sum and despite having some new faces and a few critical voices, most notably the likes of Jamil Nimri and Dr. Mustafah Hamarneh, the Dome remains dominated by old-guard parliamentarians, including the always-controversial Yahya Saud. Indeed, a mere look at the deputies who are now vying for the speakership position offers a sense of déjà vu: Abdul Karim Dughmi, Saad Hayel Srour, Khalil Atiyeh, Mohammad Al Haj and Atef Tarawneh. Dughmi and Srour served that position previously, while Tarawneh was a deputy speaker. How this will translate on the ground is yet to be seen, but one can safely expect that a parliamentary body that looks so similar to past houses will likely produce familiar results. 

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