On Monday, Jordan’s government announced a new electoral law for the kingdom that sounded strikingly like an old one. Despite its similarities to a 1989 law, many in Jordanian politics — the government and opposition alike — see this new draft law not as a regression but as a step forward. There’s a good reason for that. Democracy activists and opposition parties in Jordan have long been calling for the return of the 1989 law, which they view as more democratic and inclusive than the many laws that have been passed since. To their surprise, a version of it seems to be back.
Upon unveiling the new draft law, Prime Minister Abdullah Ensour alluded to this sentiment, calling the bill “historic,” but he also stated that it was “more or less the same as the always-praised 1989 law.” Even opposition movements such as the Muslim Brotherhood described the law as a “step in the right direction.”
So what was so wrong with the 1989 version that made it vanish for decades? That law had allowed voters as many votes as there were representatives in multi-member districts. The result was a diverse parliament in which opposition groups — secular leftist parties, Pan-Arab nationalist parties and Islamists — took more than half of the 80 seats. At the time, this was heralded as a major stride in political liberalization within Jordan, and many have continued to look back to the 1989 to 1993 period as a golden age of reform that has been difficult to reproduce ever since.
But if the opposition has looked longingly back to 1989, it has also identified the electoral law of 1993 as the turning point against it and the onset of various facets of deliberalization. In 1993, the new law was based on the Single Non-Transferable Vote (SNTV) system, known in Jordan as Sawt Wahid, or one vote. The revised law was designed to cut back on opposition representation, especially the Muslim Brotherhood and its affiliated political party, the Islamic Action Front. It worked. The opposition demanded a restoration of the older multiple vote system, and when the regime refused to comply, Islamist and others joined together in an 11-party coalition boycotting the 1997 elections.
In the years since, government and opposition parties have repeatedly squared off on these same issues of representation and inclusion. Jordan introduced a new and temporary electoral law for every election, while Jordan’s largest and best-organized opposition bloc — the Muslim Brotherhood — boycotted many of them. Critics of the electoral systems argued that districts were heavily gerrymandered to over-represent relatively conservative and pro-regime communities of tribal East Jordanians, while under-representing Jordan’s cities, more progressive constituents and large Palestinian Jordanian communities. The one-person voting system, they charged, only exacerbated these issues, pushing voters to vote along family, clan and tribal lines, favoring traditional bases of Hashemite regime support, while undercutting potential opposition and preventing the development of meaningful political parties.
With the onset of the regional Arab Spring in 2011, Jordan embarked on a series of political reforms, the regime and opposition again disagreeing about the depth of these initiatives. King Abdullah II has asserted that the Arab Spring was needed to spur Jordan’s return to its earlier and more ambitious reform agendas. In 2013, Jordan held elections that cleaned up many of the problems that had marred earlier polls, especially those in 2007 and 2010. The 2013 polls experimented with a mixed electoral system: SNTV for 108 representatives and a proportional representation (PR) system for 27 representatives drawn from national lists.
The government views the 2015 electoral law as but the latest piece in a broader set of reforms, which include a constitutional court, independent electoral commission and governance decentralization laws. And this election bill, they argue, meets key opposition demands to drop the SNTV system for the first time in 26 years and is “more or less” a revival of the 1989 system. This is partly true, but there are also key differences.
Like the 1989 measure, voters will have multiple votes, casting their ballots for as many representatives as are allotted to their districts (as in 1989); however they will also vote for a national list (similar to 2013). The new 2015 law reduces the overall number of parliamentarians from 150 to 130. Questions remain about previously heavily gerrymandered districts being replaced by similarly uneven representation based on governorates. But the law does provide for increased representation for Jordan’s largest cities (such as 28 seats for Amman, 19 for Irbid, 12 for Zarqa). The new law retains quotas to guarantee minority representation (nine seats for Christians, three seats for Circassians and Chechens). It also maintains a quota for women’s representation. According to the prime minister, this will remain as a minimum of 15 seats, and since the new parliament will be smaller than before, the proportion of women MPs will be larger.
Jordan’s next elections are expected to take place in 2017. Within the country, debates will continue regarding the electoral system, the democratic process and the role of parliament in public life. Both the regime and the opposition have talked of forming, eventually, genuine parliamentary governments. Pre-election mobilization may depend in part on how likely this seems to be. If they succeed, then the stakes for the next elections will suddenly be far higher than they have been in decades. And if that is the case, will it be enough to induce Islamist and other opponents to return to the polls, to the parliament and potentially even to government?
At present, Jordan’s Muslim Brotherhood is divided into two movements, one officially recognized by the regime and one not. Acceding to a key opposition demand after so much time might be predicated in part on this very division, as the Islamist movement is — at least for now — divided and weakened both domestically and regionally. Will the Islamist opposition participate at all? Will it be united or divided? The same questions apply to secular leftist groups and parties, and for that matter, to youth activist groups and movements across the country. Can any of these re-form as viable national lists or political parties? Will younger Jordanians be motivated to participate in the process?
Many questions remain regarding the electoral system and what it will mean for representation and for governance in the Hashemite Kingdom. For now, however, many in both government and opposition are hoping that this time a new system might signal a revitalization of reform efforts. Though the new law isn’t precisely the same as the 1989 electoral system, it may have already revived important discussions about the meaning and spirit of 1989. As Jordanians continue to debate reform — electoral and otherwise — at least some are also hoping that Jordan may finally be going “back to the future.”
Curtis Ryan is a professor of political science at Appalachian State University in North Carolina.