The Middle East Channel

The day after tomorrow: prospects for real electoral reform in Jordan

The day after tomorrow:  prospects for real electoral reform in Jordan

Last November King Abdullah issued a decree that Jordan’s upcoming parliamentary elections should be a "model for transparency, fairness and integrity." As a result, the government has made some noteworthy efforts to comply with the king’s instructions. Official voter registration lists have been published, women and urban populations will receive greater representation and, for the first time, international election observers will monitor voting on election day.

On the other hand, the recent electoral campaign has also reaffirmed the salience of identity politics based on patronage. Despite the growth of campaign websites and debates over participation through social networking sites, city streets are littered with posters that underscore the dominance of prominent personalities. Certain tribal-backed candidates have already locked up requisite support while other candidates are relying on family names and pre-existing "vote banks" to carry them to victory. In election tents across Jordan, politicos of all stripes (including women) are dishing out mansaf in hopes of reaching voters’ hearts through their stomachs.

Opinions are thus decidedly mixed about the significance of the 2010 parliamentary elections for the liberalization process in Jordan. Although most are skeptical that the Nov. 9 elections will provide an impetus for far-reaching political reform, some have expressed cautious optimism about improvements in administrative procedures. Will a "better election process" lead to electoral reform down the road?

Judging from the stark realities of the current campaign and likely victories for regime loyalists, changes in election administration should not be afforded too much meaning. At the same time, the new electoral framework does not make the elections meaningless.

The Temporary Elections Law for the 2010 elections was unveiled in May and quickly became a lightning rod for criticism across the political spectrum. Reformers were expectedly disappointed that the controversial "one vote" system was maintained while proposed electoral changes from a coalition of organizations were ignored. Surprisingly, a group of military veterans also expressed concern in the form of a public petition. Although the content focused on the status Palestinian refugees in Jordan, the timing was more significant as a warning to the regime over fundamental issues of national identity.

This is not the first time electoral reform efforts have shown deep divides within Jordan’s ruling coalition. In 2005, King Abdullah appointed a Royal Committee, comprised of a wide range of forces in the country, to develop a "National Agenda" for reform, including the electoral system. Marwan Muasher, who was former deputy prime minister and headed the committee, wrote about the tug of war that erupted between conservative political elites (who he calls the "old guard") and reformists. He recounted how "all hell broke loose" when the committee began discussion of the electoral law in particular.

Provisions in the new law also threaten to reignite conflicts among ruling elites. Lost amidst the recent hubbub are the sub-districts carved out of existing electoral districts, now labeled "electoral zones." These sub-districts have injected a new dynamic into electoral competition since candidates can only run in, and be elected from, one sub-district. They also narrow the scope of campaign support bases and force candidates to be more localized. As a result, the sub-districts will increase factionalism among pro-government elites and exacerbate conflict within some tribes. How?

Amman’s 3rd electoral zone, for example, is divided into five sub-districts. Each will elect one representative from the 17 total registered candidates. This constituency spans some of the capital’s most affluent neighborhoods and is known as the "whale" district because it typically features so many political heavyweights. In 2007, the five elected candidates won by comfortable margins with votes distributed somewhat evenly among them. In 2010, four out of the five have staked out a sub-district and will likely win reelection. This coordination has undoubtedly angered other competing candidates who have been left out in the cold. In other key sub-districts across the country, however, prominent candidates are undoubtedly pitted against each other. With Islamists on the sidelines, the electoral system will work against regime supporters, as it did in the 1997 elections with the National Constitutional Party (NCP).

This dynamic is also playing out within some tribes across Jordan. While the gerrymandered constituencies and smaller sub-districts have facilitated internal elections of tribal representatives, they also may accentuate a generational conflict within other tribes. In the 2007 elections, a number of young upstarts brought out support from older members and were elected. While the new electoral law does very little to curb tribalism, recent history suggests that single-member sub-districts may not be able to accommodate tribal representation over the long term.

In January 1984, King Hussein announced a series of by-elections to fill vacancies that had been left in the wake of the parliament’s suspension. The defeat of several notables from prominent tribes who were closely connected to the ruling family resulted in considerable dismay. Many elites called for electoral change and a few tribal leaders even joined an opposition party. In response, the regime crafted a new electoral law in 1986 that included the Block Vote in which voters cast as many votes as there are seats allocated to their constituency. The rationale for the multiple vote system (which was reaffirmed by a small circle of ruling elites before landmark elections in 1989) was to prevent infighting within clans and tribes so as to shore up traditional bases of support. This episode not only demonstrated the influence of a mobilized elite but also the need for inclusive electoral mechanisms that ensure regime supporters win elected office.

In sum, Jordan’s monarchy has embarked on a risky course by holding elections under a new framework that exposes cracks within the main pillars of the regime’s support. Just as the 1993 amendments that instituted the "one vote" system were extremely consequential for how Jordanians vote, the establishment of sub-districts has dramatically affected how elites and tribes negotiate the boundaries of their electoral influence. The results from Tuesday’s elections will reveal the extent to which loyalists competed against each other and how certain pro-regime factions fared. In the aftermath, estranged elites could soon join the chorus of those calling for fundamental electoral reform.

If history is any guide, the temporary election law promulgated this past May could actually spur meaningful reforms — not because of improvements in election procedures — but because elite dissatisfaction and uncertainty associated with single-member sub-districts render the "one vote" system unsustainable.

Andrew Barwig, Ph.D. recently completed his dissertation on electoral institutions and authoritarian resilience in the Middle East.