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The old and new lessons of Jordan’s November elections

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After King Abdullah II dissolved Jordan’s Lower House through a Royal decree in November of last year, he entrusted the government with preparing for a new round of parliamentary elections. More importantly, the king also asked the government to amend the temporary Electoral Law. 

This was largely seen as an unjust law hindering tangible political pluralism. Not only did the king’s direct request send a hopeful message to citizens wishing for meaningful political reform in the country, but the subsequent steps, which included inviting international electoral observers to monitor the elections for the first time, signaled to the international community that Jordan is eager to prove its commitment to democratization. The government obliged and set 9 November 2010 as the date for the new elections. As the election drew closer, these reforming steps turned into poorly realized policies with long-term consequences. However, the hailing of Jordan’s election as fair by international electoral observers engulfed the discussion in the narrow discourse on elections, and side-lined other perspectives from Jordanian actors and public. 


The old habit of aesthetic democratization

Political analysts and academics have argued that authoritarian regimes in the Arab world have successfully subverted the democratization discourse in ways that ensure maintaining their grip on power domestically while affirming their democratizing image internationally[1]. Jordan has not escaped this critique. Indeed, for many Jordanians last month’s election was nothing but a cruel reminder of an all-too familiar political game, starting with the controversial Electoral Law and ending with the election itself.

Passed by another Royal decree in 1993, the “one person, one vote” principle distributes voting power unequally among Jordanian citizens. Moreover, political analysts argue the law favors Jordanians of tribal origin (loyal to the Crown) and discriminates against Jordanians of Palestinian origin (often seen as allied with the opposition such as the Islamic Action Front: the country’s Islamists and most organized opposition party). In addition, the “one person, one vote” system eliminates the opportunity to vote for a list of candidates, thereby making it increasingly difficult for political parties to run on a shared platform. The consequence of this law is a turn toward politics based on family name, size, and reputation, or what has been referred to as tribalism.

For many Jordanians, this does not necessarily deviate from the way in which a number of political institutions are run. Yet what is different and remains troubling today, is that the government—appointed by the King—failed to abolish the “one person, one vote” system, which in turn causes the very act of elections to remain aesthetic. This is one consequence that the international democratization discourse has to address more directly. Although political observers acknowledge this, the discourse continues to place too much weight on the act of election itself rather than on actual improvements in democratic conditions. 


The chances of women’s empowerment

Perhaps more troubling are the potential effects this law has on women’s role in politics and their empowerment. On the positive side, the amended Electoral Law raised the number of seats allocated to women from a quota of 6 to 12, and at least one woman was voted in as the representative of a Bedouin district[2]. Although 13 women have been elected to the 120 member parliament, the number of running female candidates actually decreased from 199 in 2007 to 142 in this November’s election[3]. The decline in participation did not go completely unnoticed. Yet, as the director for Arab Women Media Watch Centre, Iqbal Tamimi, argued, the voices of women voters and a thorough analysis of their participation remained rather absent[4]

In the same way that authoritarian regimes have manipulated the democratization discourse to their advantage, a similar effect—albeit perhaps unrecognized as willful—could be at stake with women’s representation and empowerment under the Electoral Law. Although one should be careful in drawing direct causal links between phenomena that are separated from their contexts, there is little doubt that Jordanian tribal communities, who are benefiting from the Electoral Law, are patriarchal communities with narrow room for female political representation[5]. This is not to say that patriarchal values are only present in tribal communities. But it is to suggest that if the Electoral Law favors tribal communities—who largely chose the candidates that should run as their representatives in this election[6]—then this move has the consequence of keeping power in the hands of men and reducing the opportunities for other family members, mainly women, to participate.


The opposition and the boycott

So is there a point in running in an election that is governed by a law favoring tribal Jordanians and individuals with familial clout as opposed to political parties? After its largely negative experience in the 2007 elections—widely seen as rigged—the Islamic Action Front (IAF) decided that participating under such conditions would only further legitimize the election as a false sign of democratic progress. The effects of that decision remain to be seen, but some consequences have already emerged. For example, some IAF members decided to run in the election as independents against the party’s decision, which is causing further internal tensions within IAF lines.

Other players have also expressed their opposition to the entire electoral process. For example, the youth committee of the Jordanian Democratic Popular Unity Party launched a boycott campaign under the slogan “Boycott for Change,” arguing that the elected parliament will not represent their voices. Though rather small, the campaign received some attention from Jordanians. In a recent poll by Jordan’s Center for Strategic Studies, 25% of those polled answered they had heard of the campaign, in contrast with 52% who reported hearing of the government’s immense “Let Us Hear Your Voice” campaign[7]. However, the boycotting campaign seemed to receive little international attention, at least until the government arrested a few of its members. Once more, the discourse of a free and democratic election prevailed, and a serious discussion of the campaign’s potential significance was side-lined in its favor. This leaves many questions unexplored, such as the difference between the percentage of Jordanians opposing a boycott (73%) and the 53% voter turn-out rate.

In conclusion, the internationalized democratization discourse still holds much power in Jordan’s international image, and in turn it greatly influences the way in which elections are conducted and which principles of the electoral process are highlighted. Often this approach leads to underestimating or completely missing the importance of the on-the-ground realities in which elections are conducted.

Adriana Qubaia specializes in research concerning the Middle East region and gender issues. She has lived, studied and worked in research in the Czech Republic, France, Hungary, Jordan and the USA. She obtained her BA in Middle East Studies from Middlebury College in the USA. Specializing in Gender Studies at the Central European University in Budapest, she recently completed her Master’s dissertation titled, “Children of the Nation: Palestinian and Israeli National Bodies”. 


[1] See for example: M. Ottaway and M. Dunne, Incumbent Regimes and the ‘King’s Dilemma’ in the Arab World: Promise and Threat of Managed Reform, Carnegie Paper, Number 88, 2007. And N. Brown, Jordan and Its Islamic Movement: The Limits of Inclusion, Carnegie Paper, Number 74, 2006. See also M. Ottaway and A. Hamzawy, Getting to Pluralism: Political Actors in the Arab World, Washington D.C.: CEIP, 2009.

[2] See NDI’s report Jordan Elections show clear improvement over 207 polls, NDI Observer Mission Says, available online at http://www.ndi.org/files/Jordan_Statement_Release_111010.pdf

[3] Ali Al-Rawashdeh, 142 Women Campaign for Jordanian Parliamentary Elections, retrieved December 5th 2010 from Al-Shorfa:

http://www.al-shorfa.com/cocoon/meii/xhtml/en_GB/features/meii/features/main/2010/10/20/feature-01

[4] See Iqbal Tamimi’s opinion piece titled Women in Jordan’s Election and Media Coverage, available online at her blog: http://community.ejc.net/profiles/blogs/women-in-jordans-elections-and

[5] See for example Suha Philip Ma’ayeh, Jordanian Women Count on Each Other to Enter Parliament, retrieved December 5, 2010 from The National:

http://www.thenational.ae/news/worldwide/middle-east/jordanian-women-count-on-each-other-to-enter-parliament

[6] A polling report conducted by the Jordanian Center for Strategic Studies in November 2010, found that 41% of those surveyed said their tribe, family, or community chose a candidate to represent them in the election, versus 48% who said no consensus was reached on one particular family member. Retrieved December 5, 2010 from the JCSS website: http://www.jcss.org/UploadPolling/289.pdf

[7] Jordanian Center for Strategic Studies, “Istitla’ al-Rai’ al-‘Am Hawl al-Amaliyah al-Intikhabiyah wal- Musharakah fi al-Intikhabat,” A Public Survey of the Electoral Process and Participating in Elections, November 2010,  retrieved December 5, 2010 at: http://www.jcss.org/UploadPolling/289.pdf

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