Jordanians are scheduled to go the polls on Sept. 20 to elect a new parliament. The election has gotten little attention in international media, and even many Jordanians are less than enthusiastic.
Yet even electoral officials are worried about perceived lack of public enthusiasm and hence fear that a markedly low turnout would cast doubt on the polls themselves.
“I’m afraid that there is a real problem of trust among voters,” noted Jordanian analyst Osama al-Sharif, “If there is low turnout, it will send a clear message to the regime. People are fed up with the rhetoric of reform, with rhetoric about parliamentary governments, and with new slogans.”
Most officials, candidates and activists I spoke with a few weeks ago in Jordan were predicting 40 percent turnout or less.
“No parties are boycotting,” activist Hisham Bustani said, “but the people are boycotting.”
Jordan’s Independent Election Commission (IEC), however, disputes this and hopes to double the turnout prediction of its critics. With that in mind, the IEC has worked on a voter turnout and information campaign, explaining the new system and precisely how one votes. Civil society organizations and research centers have actively monitored the election, providing additional analysis of the process, the candidates and the lists.
This is particularly important because many Jordanians find the new system confusing. Since its initial political liberalization process began in 1989, Jordan has introduced a new electoral law for every national parliamentary election, eight in total. So explaining each new system is definitely warranted, and the IEC has made extensive use of social media and videos to demonstrate precisely how it works.
Jordan’s electoral process explained
With the new system, the government acceded to a long-standing opposition demand by finally abandoning the “one person, one vote” system for individual district representatives — or the single nontransferable vote (SNTV) system, typically used when casting one vote for multiple positions. Jordan used variations of SNTV from 1993 to 2013. But opposition parties and activists often called for multiple votes for multi-member districts or for proportional representation with national party lists, or some combination of the two.
The struggle over electoral laws was so significant that it triggered multiple opposition boycotts over the years. The new law does away with SNTV, restores multiple votes for multi-member districts and requires candidates to be part of district (not national) lists. Voters will first vote for a list and then vote for multiple candidates within that list.
The government has argued that the law will help foster political parties, insisting that this is essential to an eventual shift toward parliamentary governments. But parties remain weak in Jordan. Most Jordanians have no connection to any political party, and while the new system does require candidate lists, these are based within districts, not for the country at large. So they are not likely to become the building blocks of national political parties. Instead, many opposition groups will find themselves competing against each other within smaller district-level contests.
The most recent election, in 2013, introduced a two-vote system: one ballot for a district candidate and one for a national list (with 27 seats out of 150 drawn from these lists).
Many expected the new law to build on this, with proportional representation for national lists, but expanding over time from 27 seats to half of parliament. That might have eventually helped build national parties, but shifting back to district-level contests may actually have the reverse effect. Jordanian writer Hisham Bustani argued that the new law, like its predecessors, is not about enhancing pluralism or democratization, but instead aims at sustaining power and the status quo.
Winning candidates are likely to do what they have done in the last several decades of elections: form ad hoc blocs within parliament after the elections, based on personal connections but rarely on platforms or even ideology.
Candidates, lists and other challenges
Meanwhile most Jordanians are keenly aware of Jordan’s many current challenges — in terms of routine complaints of corruption, economic hardship, high unemployment (especially among youths) and regional insecurity. In addition to its own domestic problems, the kingdom is also dealing with more than a million Syrian refugees, while also trying to avoid getting dragged deeper into Syria and other regional conflicts, even as it participates in the anti-Islamic State coalition.
These are enormous challenges, but instead of inspiring active participation, they are more likely to cast a shadow over the polls and over parliament itself, which few Jordanians regard as an effective institution, regardless of elections or electoral systems. Many Jordanians feel that parliament has little influence regarding any of the more pressing matters noted above, and they therefore see the electoral stakes as low, with most power remaining in the monarchy, not the parliament.
Still, even if many voters remain uninspired, candidates have been very active: More than 1,200 candidates are on 226 lists competing for 130 parliamentary seats. Within these 130 seats, the new law includes a minimum quota of 15 female members of parliament, at least one from each governorate, nine seats to guarantee Christian representation, and three seats for Circassian and Chechen minorities. There are two all-female electoral lists, and 255 women are contesting the polls, a record in Jordan.
Even with the very different electoral system, campaigns have followed a familiar path. Candidates put their names and pictures on large billboards for their list — sometimes with a slogan, sometimes not — but rarely with any actual platform.
There are some notable exceptions to this more generic trend, however. The Ma’an (“Together”) List in Amman, bills itself explicitly as a “Civil State” (dawla al-madaniyya) List. It argues for a secular politics and the separation of religion from government. Running on the slogan “Citizenship, Justice, and Security,” the Civil State List has also produced a program of principles and priorities. Other groups in civil society, such as the Taqaddam (“Progress”) have not put forward their own list but have put out their own progressive program and voter guide.
The return of the Islamists
Islamists have returned to the polls, in the form of at least three different movements. In 2013, the Islamic Action Front and Muslim Brotherhood boycotted (again), leaving an alternative Islamist movement — the Islamic Centrist or Wasat Party. But this time Wasat will compete against the much larger and well-organized Muslim Brotherhood. But in Jordan, after a major split, there is not one Muslim Brotherhood, but two.
The newer reform-oriented Muslim Brotherhood Society has formed several lists, while the related Zamzam reform movement has recast itself as the National Congress Party, forming still more lists. Both movements are attempting to broaden their appeal by fielding lists that include tribal candidates as well as Islamists.
By far the largest of Jordan’s numerous Islamist movements, however, is the one rooted in the original, unlicensed, version of the Muslim Brotherhood and its related political party, the Islamic Action Front (IAF). They have formed the National Coalition for Reform (Islah) and are fielding lists of candidates in almost every district, downplaying Islamist rhetoric and slogans, and making sure to include tribal, Christian and other non-Islamist candidates on their lists. Of all the opposition movements, this altered version of the old Muslim Brotherhood and IAF has the largest grass-roots support and the most extensive “ground game” for electoral turnout.
The return of the opposition — including multiple streams of Islamism — to Jordanian elections is perhaps the most important aspect of this election — and also the most unpredictable aspect of the current electoral process. Islamists expect to make large gains in parliament, and many government officials fear they are right.
Jordan’s many anti-Islamist forces, in contrast, hope that the localized district races, coupled with intra-Islamist divisions, will serve to temper Islamist electoral success. But which Islamists? Since all are participating (aside from Jordan’s Salafi movements), they are in competition with each other and they see the polls as a referendum on which group holds the greatest legitimacy within their own base (the government-sanctioned version of the Muslim Brotherhood or the original and now unlicensed version, for example). The de facto Islamist referendum embedded with Jordan’s national elections will therefore also serve as a test of the regime’s own policies regarding Islamism in the Hashemite Kingdom.
Besides the question of the Islamist impact, there are several other key concerns in these elections. Will any of the secular lists or those with real platforms succeed? Will women’s representation exceed the 15-seat minimum in the quota? Will the new parliament result in foundational elements for new national political parties or instead divide these into ever-smaller parts? And very importantly, for all the changes in the electoral system and in electoral dynamics, will the new parliament look significantly different from its predecessors, which have been composed mainly of loyalist, conservative, and East Jordanian tribal or business elites.
This suggests another key question: Will Jordanian youths participate, and will younger candidates actually win some seats? Youth activism is extensive in Jordan, with a new youth activist coalition, for example, forming this year. The Arab Spring may be over, in short, but youth activism in the kingdom is not.
Whether young people show up at the polls will have an enormous effect on overall turnout, which remains a significant concern since turnout will be seen as a key measure of the validity of the polls. The main fear of some officials, however, is that overall turnout will be low, while Islamist turnout will be high. Nonetheless, officials within Jordan’s IEC, government and palace hope that Jordanians will turn out in significant numbers and thereby certify the system, suggesting that Jordan is on the right track and is providing a unique model in an otherwise turbulent region.
On Sept. 20, both government and opposition hope to have their answers.
Curtis Ryan is a professor of political science at Appalachian State University in North Carolina.