One of the most common claims I hear when asking Jordanians about elections is: “We are a tribal society, and tribalism will always dominate the elections.” And in truth, since their reintroduction in 1989, the same tribes have consistently dominated these elections. But for the election held just two weeks ago, the electoral rules underwent a fresh round of reforms in an attempt to encourage political parties.
The regime finally did away with the highly unpopular “one man, one vote” (al sawt al-wahid) or single nontransferable vote (SNTV) system. This divisive system was blamed for favoring wealthy business executives or strong tribal candidates elected with narrow support coalitions, who could purchase votes either outright with cash or through promises of personal services once elected. Under this system, strong political parties and cohesive legislative blocs were almost completely absent from the parliament.
King Abdullah II has been quite clear about his goals for Jordan, and one of them is the election of political parties based on their legislative programs. In a series of discussion papers, he outlines a desire for a vibrant parliament in which coalition blocs of parties initiate and debate legislation based on political programs. Yet the question of how to create a party-based system remains elusive.
After having spent more than two years conducting fieldwork in Jordan on parliamentary politics, I see three major challenges Jordan must address before elections can ever be expected to produce a party-based parliament. First, the electoral system needs stability — or at least a guarantee that any subsequent changes to the electoral law will be announced years before the next elections. Second, Jordan needs a clear path for the creation of legislation at the hands of the parliamentarians themselves. Third, a civil-education campaign for all levels of society needs to explain why political parties are important and how the voting system works.
Nearly every election has been coupled with changes to the system concerning voting rules or districting. Across eight elections between 1989 and 2016, the regime has employed four different types of electoral systems. The lack of consistent electoral rules in Jordan promotes disorder among candidates and voters, hindering the ability of political parties to do well in the elections.
Even more troubling than the inconsistencies in Jordan’s electoral process is the fact the changes are not announced until shortly before the elections. This year, the election date was not made public until the end of May, and a number of important bylaws concerning government funding for political parties and voting processes were announced only in August.
Some may say that rather than resorting to outright force, the regime manages political challengers through confusion. Ramsey Day, head of the International Republican Institute, in Amman, that led an international election-monitoring mission this year explained to me that the ever-changing system affects “the ability of political parties to govern themselves internally — they spend so much time figuring out what will happen next rather than strategizing how to do best in the elections.”
Political parties were outlawed in Jordan, and they became legal again only in 1992. If strong political parties, the king’s stated goal, are ever to come into existence, they must know the rules of the elections long before those elections are actually held.
“Political parties need to know the electoral system years in advance of election day to prepare campaigns that will convince skeptical voters of the importance of supporting a party-based system in Jordan,” Dima Tahboub, a female candidate on a list affiliated with the Islamic Action Front (IAF), the political arm of the Muslim Brotherhood, told me just before the elections. “We get used to one system, but then everything changes. We need a state of stability, no more temporary laws.”
In developed party systems, parties learn from their mistakes and build on their strengths from one election to the next. If the rules of the game is constantly changing, parties cannot build up institutional knowledge to benefit future campaigns.
The new system is based on an open-list proportional representation (PR) system. There were some positive results that emerged from this new system, including the creation of diverse coalitions. The 45 districts from 2013 were amalgamated into just 23 larger districts. “The bigger districts encourage candidates to cater to a larger and more diverse groups of voters,” Amer Bani Amer, director of the Hayat Center for Civil Society Development, said in an interview this month.
Indeed, the IAF formed lists that included candidates of Islamist and tribal backgrounds as well as Christians, Circassians, Chechens and women. Their National Alliance for Reform won 17 of the 130 seats. Women took 20 seats, including five beyond the quota. And in fact, an average (non-quota) seat in the 2013 elections was won with only about 5,000 votes, whereas this year an average seat was won with about 9,700 votes.
Yet beyond the IAF, long considered to be the single-most organized political coalition in the country, the current law failed to create incentives for candidates to form ideologically aligned party lists or encourage voters to coalesce behind them. Only 18 percent of the candidates were affiliated with parties in the elections. As a result, the majority of seats were won by independents. Local political analysts think this is due, in part, to the absence of a minimum threshold of votes required to win seats, something that political parties had specifically requested when the law was being discussed but was ultimately ignored.
Beyond the election law, politicians must be rewarded for coalition building with real power. As it stands now, the parliament remains the pawn of the king, who appoints the entire upper house of the parliament as well as the cabinet, holds veto power on legislation, and retains the power to dissolve the parliament at his prerogative.
Constitutionally, the Jordanian parliament is set with the tasks of creating, amending and passing legislation, monitoring ministers and ministerial activities, and overseeing governmental budgets. Yet as much as they may try, members of the parliament report that challenging legislation from the regime is difficult. The lower house is limited to amending only what was sent to it; members of parliament cannot expand the investigation wider than what was sent to them. If the lower house wants to reject a law sent from the government, a joint session of both houses is held, and it takes a two-thirds vote of both houses to enforce a modification of the law that is not in accordance with the government’s wishes. In practice, this has happened very few times in the parliament’s history.
Once elected, legislators face an uphill battle to actually legislate. In terms of constitutional powers, any group of 10 members of parliament may propose legislation. This proposal is then assigned to a committee for review by the prime minister. But there is no rule limiting the amount of time proposed legislation can stay with the committees and the government once it leaves the parliamentarians’ hands.
A national list leader from the last parliament, Rula al-Hroob, describes how she submitted 54 pieces of legislation that more than 10 parliamentarians signed — including one with 36 signatures — yet none made it to the floor for discussion in the more than three years she was in office. The cabinet members do not actually come from among the parliamentarians, hamstringing attempts of parliamentary blocs to get their laws enacted from above. These serious curtails to the power of the parliament must be addressed to incentivize the creation of political parties with broad popular appeal.
Beyond the powerlessness of the parliament, the voting population at-large must understand the role of a parliament in a constitutional monarchy. White papers are not enough to give citizens a reason to vote for parties instead of their personal connections. They need to understand why electing political coalitions of parliamentarians, rather than individuals, is important for the legislative process. In a conversation just before the election, Moumen Al Hadidi, a Zam Zam-affiliated candidate, told me that “because no one expects a list to win more than one seat, the current open-list system makes it so that candidates within the same lists are competing with one another, each instructing their supporters not to cast votes for anyone else on the list.” What is needed is a nationwide education program on the established electoral system and how it works so that the voters fully understand what to do at the polling stations years before the next election.
Kristen Kao is a postdoctoral research fellow with the program on governance and local development at the University of Gothenburg, in Sweden.