The Middle East Channel

Jordan’s high stakes electoral reform

Jordan’s high stakes electoral reform

Jordan’s lower house of parliament has approved the country’s latest draft electoral law, and was soon seconded by the upper house or senate, with no revisions. The public response, however, was anything but quiet. The new electoral law triggered instant uproar across the kingdom among opposition and pro-reform activists.

Even in parliament itself, some members threatened to resign over passage of what they viewed as a regressive law, while others even came to blows. Opposition parties and movements, including the Muslim Brotherhood and its affiliated political party, the Islamic Action Front, threatened to boycott the election unless the law was changed. The Jordanian parts of the twitterverse and blogosphere lit up with animated discussions, most of which were scathing in their assessment of the new law and indeed of reform in the kingdom in general. Indeed, the draft law — coupled with highly unpopular economic austerity measures — seemed to reinvigorate Jordan’s 17 month old protest movement.

Even writing this feels like déjà vu, however, since this is Jordan’s second electoral law in as many months, put forth by its fourth government in the last 17 months. In a sense, we have seen this movie before.  Or have we? King Abdullah surprised many observers by calling for a special session of parliament, sending the legislation back to be amended, and even making the same suggestion as the opposition: adding seats for political parties and national lists.

The new law increased parliament from 120 to 140 seats. Voters will have two votes: one for a district representative and one for national level lists that include (but are not limited to) political parties. 15 seats will be reserved to guarantee women’s representation (up from the previous 12). 108 seats will come from the traditional district format, while 17 (two more than in the electoral law proposed two months ago) would be reserved for the national lists.

So why the negative public response? Clearly government and opposition seem to have dramatically different senses of what is actually happening. But the polarization has, in fact, reached potentially dangerous levels. Adding difficult austerity measures to the already widespread lack of public confidence in the reform process creates a potentially volatile mix.

For the regime, this level of public disaffection is puzzling and may be due to the tedium of the process itself. It could be fixed, in other words, by simply completing the reform process and finally arriving at the end result. In my own meeting with the king a month ago, he was earnest and even passionate about his reform vision and about the urgency of getting this right. The electoral law, he argued, is in many respects the final piece in the overall political reform puzzle. The kingdom has already unveiled multiple constitutional amendments, a constitutional court, a new law on political parties, and an independent electoral commission.

King Abdullah has consistently insisted that elections be held before the end of the year. He has argued that elections and a new parliament would engage the citizenry in the reform project and launch Jordan into an entirely new era. The king also suggested that the next government might come from parliament itself, from whatever key parties and blocs of MPs coalesce after the election. Since this is a key opposition demand, it would mark a major departure from the last several decades of Jordanian politics.

For Jordan’s array of opposition parties, popular movements, civil society organizations, and its even larger numbers of independent reform activists, the new law is a key opportunity to see — once and for all — if the reform process is real. They have consistently demanded an end to the one-person one-vote system used in various forms since 1993, since it is associated with various abuses and with curbing the strength of the opposition.

The National Dialogue Commission, formed after the start of the Arab spring movements, had recommended a mixed electoral system, and the government argues that that is exactly what they have produced. The opposition, however, sees this as the old one-person one-vote system, with a handful of additional seats tacked on for parties and national blocs. After all the talk of reform, they argue, the new law looks like the old law with a few post-it notes to parties attached. They have demanded that more seats be added for parties, making it a more genuinely mixed electoral system, and King Abdullah himself appears to agree.

The task at hand actually consists of at least three key parts: improving the electoral law, making the elections themselves more free and fair, and finally, making parliament itself a relevant institution again (which would entail a greater separation of powers between parliament and the monarchy). The first issue of adding seats can now be accomplished by parliamentary amendment. The current number of a mere 17 seats out of 140 seems far too small. But the demand of opposition parties for 50 percent of MPs to come from parties is likely far too large, at least at this stage (Jordan’s first use of party lists and proportional representation). Yet an increase of some sort is clearly required. Even doubling the current number might reasonably respond to opposition demands while also preventing widespread panic in old guard forces such as Jordan’s always conservative mukhabarat or General Intelligence Directorate (GID).

The second task falls on the new electoral commission, which has the difficult task of making sure that the electoral process itself is fair, accurate, and free from the rigging that has at times marred electoral results, especially in the recent past.  The leader of the commission, Abd al-Ilah al-Khatib, a former foreign minister and the U.N.’s former envoy attempting to mediate the crisis in Libya, has a reputation for honesty and integrity. But he also has a tremendously difficult job and very little time to do it in. "Time matters," he noted, "But we won’t cut corners, because credibility and transparency matter more than a particular date. Still, we would prefer to have the election before the end of the year." The commission therefore plans to draw on international expertise, in everything from voter cards, to ballots, ballot boxes, and handicapped accessibility of polling stations.

Meanwhile, Jordan’s raging debate over political reform is further constrained by regional violence and unrest, and the influences of both successes and failures of movements outside Jordan — from Egypt to Syria. Unfortunately for the reform movement in Jordan, the threats to Jordan’s internal and external security tend to undermine their desires for openness and change. Knee-jerk security reactions always undermine democratic impulses, and certainly not just in Jordan. Instead, these dire domestic and regional circumstances should be read as King Abdullah has himself suggested on many occasions — an opportunity. 

This leads back to a broader question: given the difficult economic circumstances and regional unrest, should reform in Jordan slow down or speed up? Jordan’s GID and much of its old guard elite consistently argue for the former. But they have just as consistently been wrong. The issue is not just reform or security in Jordan in 2012 or 2013. Public patience is long gone. Protests now include locations, clans, and tribes that had formerly been counted as bastions of regime loyalty. The deeper issue is the very nature and identity of Jordan’s society and regime, now and well into the future.

Failure to proceed with real rather than cosmetic reform will be a far greater threat to regime security than anything occurring in Syria, Iraq, Israel, or Palestine. But since public patience is quickly dissipating, and there is no sign of an economic recovery in the near future (and indeed, more austerity measures can be expected), then the only pressure release the country has is to open the system politically. Allowing deeper reform via a more inclusive electoral law, revitalizing parliament as a significant institution, drawing government from the elected parliament, and allowing a greater separation of powers would actually strengthen the monarchy and Jordanian security for the long run.

The moment is now. Parliament has an opportunity to respond to both the king and Jordanian society by amending the electoral law to be more inclusive and democratic. The electoral commission has the daunting task of modernizing and cleaning up the electoral process itself. If these reforms were combined with clear commitments to draw the next government from the largest parliamentary blocs and thereafter allow a greater separation of powers (and hence a revitalization of parliamentary life and institutional significance) than the reform process can truly move forward.

King Abdullah has talked frequently and even passionately about the Arab spring as an opportunity rather than a constraint. He may well be right about that. And that is all the more reason not to miss this opportunity to create a truly alternative and uniquely Jordanian model for reform and democratic change.

Curtis R. Ryan @Curtisryan1 is associate professor of political science at Appalachian State University and author of Jordan in Transition: From Hussein to Abdullah and Inter-Arab Alliances: Regime Security and Jordanian Foreign Policy