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Parliamentary Elections in Jordan- September 2016

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The parliamentary elections in Jordan are set at a time of turbulence in the broader region, Jordan having to put enormous efforts into stabilizing itself against all odds. The Kingdom is being overwhelmed both by external factors (war-torn neighbors) resulting in an ever-growing refugee crisis and internal threats, spread in the context of struggling economy and rising unemployment. Jordan is a member in the coalition against Daesh and until now has been spared from terrorist attacks, with the exception of an attack on 21 June 2016, a suicide bombing claimed by Daesh resulting in the loss of life of seven border guards.

Jordanians voted on Tuesday, 20th September, for a new parliament under revised legislation meant to strengthen political parties and encourage pluralism. The voting is seen as a bid by the kingdom’s monarch, ABDULLAH II of Jordan, to boost public’s confidence in the government and revive the Jordanian sluggish economy.

Jordan has moved towards a more inclusive vote this year, replacing a controversial one-person-one-vote system with a list-based system in a quest to encourage political parties. The Jordanian policy makers have tried to highlight the importance they give to pluralism, in the context of an ongoing refugee crisis and a struggling economy that crippled Jordan’s development. Government spokesperson Mohammad MOMANI has seen the 2016 vote as “historic by all means”.[i]

The parliamentary elections of 2016 do represent a first-timer since 1986, given that the vote is held under proportional representation. Therefore, key opposition groups that previously boycotted the elections, including the Muslim Brotherhood’s Jordanian branch, are set to achieve most gains out of the elections.[ii]

More than four million Jordanians were eligible to vote on 20th September, for 130 Representatives to the Chamber of Deputies, the lower house of Parliament, under the revised Elections Law, with 15 seats reserved for women, nine for Christians and three for minority Chechens and Circassians.

What is interesting about these elections, beyond the reform is that it left room for the main opposition bloc to affirm its popularity. The main opposition group - a Jordanian branch of the Muslim Brotherhood - competed for the first time in almost a decade, after boycotting two previous rounds of elections invoking that “one man, one vote” system favored only government’s traditional tribal supporters. The Muslim Brotherhood is a political group that finds its origins in Egypt back in 1928 and encompasses an Islamist agenda. The group came to Jordan in the 1950s after King HUSSEIN offered it a safe harbor from Gamal Abdel NASSER, the President of Egypt back in those times and rival of the king, who tried to annihilate the political influence of the Muslim Brotherhood.

In the Jordanian elections of 2016, the Islamic Action Front (IAF), the political arm of the Muslim Brotherhood, a skillful opposition movement connected, proved the most organized entity. The IAF represents the mother Muslim Brotherhood group, which is deemed illegal in Jordan. However it established 20 lists running under Al Islah bloc, or the national reform coalition, comprising Christians, members of other political parties and tribal leaders, in a conquest to rebrand itself as a moderate political voice catering for all Jordanians. The IAF is contesting nearly every parliamentary seat after the governmental pressure almost brought it to dissolution point in the past.

Elections in Jordan have been generally disputed because they are thought to favor East Bank constituencies, mostly populated by Jordanian tribes’ descendants over the crowded urban areas inhabited by Jordanians of Palestinian descent, implying a higher degree of political stakes.[iii] The political empowerment of Jordanians of Palestinian origin is a very delicate topic in a country with many citizens of Palestinian origin, outnumbering in some areas the native Jordanians. Nonetheless, the Muslim Brotherhood in Jordan was allowed to operate through the means of vast networks of charities, hospitals and mosques, winning the hearts and minds of the habitants of the slums and Palestinian refugee camps.[iv]

The Islamist party last participated in elections in 2007, preparing a political comeback and reshuffle of its political views after boycotting elections in 2010 and 2013, disagreeing over the electoral laws back then. In order to achieve striking results this year, the IAF has mobilized a different type of electorate. The green flags and banners, reminders of Islamic symbols were gone. They were replaced by white banners written with the word “reform” in the middle. Christians and women were at the forefront of the campaign, while Islam was not mentioned once, betting on political moderation. Throughout the capital Amman the election posters of the Brotherhood candidates were displayed prominently. At public debates in the capital, a traditional stronghold, they rallied cheering crowds that sang nationalist and Bedouin folk songs. The tone was not alike the previous rallies of the Islamist movements.[v]

Ali Abu al-Sukkar, the Front’s deputy head declared that: “We want to prove that the [Muslim Brotherhood] still has a popular presence among Jordanians”.[vi] The group gave up on the “Islam is the Solution” slogan and invited both Christian candidates and prominent national figures in order to establish a stronger electoral base, calling it The National Coalition for Reform.

Various projections show that the Brotherhood is to become the largest political force in Jordan’s 130-member parliament, a momentous gain for a party that was inactive for several electoral turns.[vii] There are indications that the Jordanian Muslim Brotherhood will achieve more political influence than ever, despite governmental attempts to ban it as part of a movement trying to outlaw Political Islam. However, it proved more difficult for the IAF to win the votes of those who preserve their doubts regarding the political group. This resulted in a rather low turnover to vote.

The polls predicted that approximately 38% of the more than 4 million Jordanians eligible to vote were expected to cast ballots.[viii] Musa MAAYTAH, Jordan’s minister of political and parliamentary affairs described the electoral process as a step toward “genuine and effective political parties that represent people.”[ix] Low turnouts (even lower than the predictions) raised concerns about widespread political apathy, notably in Jordan’s two largest urban centers, the capital, Amman, and the city of Zarqa. The main reason behind the low attendance is that the majority of Jordanians have doubts in relation to Parliament’s efficiency, especially at a time when they are confronted with numerous social and economic problems.

Traditionally the voting in Jordan follows tribal and blood lines rather than party affiliation. In the wake of the regional instability and ardent domestic problems linked to the economy, it is interesting to follow how the IAF fares in the voting process. A clear-cut victory would raise a signal about Jordanians’ fatigue with the current politics and the enticement with change. The victory for an Islamist coalition also features the movement’s political ability to rebrand with a view to appeal to more voters.

The observers and analysts anticipated apathy of many voters who wage minimal confidence in what the Parliament can do for the nation (Jordan’s development being stagnant), assuming that the Parliament is dominated by pro-government tribal representatives.

Officials ‘results announced that reported turnout at the end of the voting day was 1,492,044 voters, lower than the election in January 2013.[x] According to the Independent Electoral Commission (IEC) President, “the 18th Parliament will be split by tribal figures, businesspeople, Islamists and leftists with better showing of women”.[xi] The President of the IEC also noted that 56 out of 170 candidates who served in previous parliaments won seats in the current election.

Ballot counting went relatively smoothly with partial results announced on Wednesday, 21 September. No major incidents were reported in tribal areas where clan fights can occur when results are released. Results from the field monitoring teams showed that, for the most part, counting was conducted in accordance with the IEC’s instructions.[xii] The efforts of the security apparatus to monitor the 2016 Parliamentary Elections, with the note that the monitoring effort limited the impact of violent incidents, were hailed.

Even though the electoral process was generally lacking incidents, the apathy was an indicator of the general malaise prevalent within the Kingdom of Jordan. The former opposition winning the votes might challenge the status-quo in governance on mid-term. The reform in the electoral process meant to encourage political parties in the hope of electing a Parliament with broader representation. This step pinpointed the rulers’ need to share the burden of an economic downsize and spiraling social tensions over a huge influx of refugees coming from the war-ridden neighbors.[xiii] It seems those five years on from the Arab Spring, the political landscape in the Arab world is suffering from a strong fragmentation and a prolonged crisis failing to

[i] Idem.

[ii]Al Jazeera, Bethan Staton, Jordan set for 'historic' vote,20 September 2016, http://www.aljazeera.com/news/2016/09/jordan-set-historic-vote-160919085005290.html

[iii] Reuters, Suleiman Al Khalidi, Jordan's rebranded Islamists seen staging election comeback, 20 September 2016,http://www.reuters.com/article/us-jordan-election-idUSKCN11Q23C

[iv] The Washington Post, Taylor Luck,Reinvention of Jordan’s Muslim Brotherhood involves women — and Christians,20 September 2016, https://www.washingtonpost.com/world/middle_east/a-rebranded-muslim-brotherhood-attempts-a-comeback-in-jordan/2016/09/19/b9be80a6-7deb-11e6-ad0e-ab0d12c779b1_story.html?tid=sm_tw

[v]Idem.

[vi] The Wall Street Journal, SuhaMa’ayeh, Rory Jones, Muslim Brotherhood on the Ballot in Jordan Elections, 20 September 2016, http://www.wsj.com/articles/muslim-brotherhood-on-the-ballot-in-jordan-elections-1474376916

[vii] Idem.

[viii]The Washington Post, Taylor Luck,Reinvention of Jordan’s Muslim Brotherhood involves women — and Christians,20 September 2016,https://www.washingtonpost.com/world/middle_east/a-rebranded-muslim-brotherhood-attempts-a-comeback-in-jordan/2016/09/19/b9be80a6-7deb-11e6-ad0e-ab0d12c779b1_story.html?tid=sm_tw

[ix]The Wall Street Journal, SuhaMa’ayeh, Rory Jones, Muslim Brotherhood on the Ballot in Jordan Elections, 20 September 2016, http://www.wsj.com/articles/muslim-brotherhood-on-the-ballot-in-jordan-elections-1474376916

[x]http://www.entikhabat.jo/en/content/all-polling-centers-closed

[xi] Jordan times, Laila Azzeh, Preliminary election results announced, legislature makeup takes shape, 23 September 2016, http://www.jordantimes.com/news/local/preliminary-election-results-announced-legislature-makeup-takes-shape

[xii] Al Hayat Center for Civil Society Development, Jordan

[xiii] BBC News, Yolande Knell, Islamists gamble with return to Jordan's elections,20 September 2016,  http://www.bbc.com/news/world-middle-east-37407896

 

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