The Middle East Channel

Elections, parliament, and a “new” prime minister in Jordan

Elections, parliament, and a “new” prime minister in Jordan

In some respects, Jordan’s recent electoral process began and ended with Abdullah an-Nsour. Nsour was first appointed prime minister of Jordan in October 2012, replacing Fayez Tarawneh, who had served a mere five months. At that time, Nsour became the fifth prime minister of Jordan since the start of the regional Arab Spring at the end of 2010. Now, apparently, he is also the sixth, tapped to form a new government following Jordan’s January 2013 parliamentary elections.

There are other signs of continuity amidst all the discussion of reform. Immediately after the elections, the new parliament elected Saad Hayel Srour to be speaker of parliament. Srour had served in the post several times before. Along similar lines, former Prime Minister Tarawneh was appointed Chief of the Royal Hashemite Court. Both men are conservative veteran officials. Similarly, the shift from Nsour to Nsour as prime minister doesn’t exactly cry out "change," yet parts of the process were actually new and different. 

Jordanian prime ministers have always been royal appointees, but this time, the king argued, marked a major departure from Jordan’s past; because this time the new prime minister and government emerged following extensive consultations between the palace and the newly-elected parliament. The January elections, the king said, were a "milestone" in the political development of the kingdom and even a step toward more parliamentary government.

All this discussion of change is, of course, deeply influenced by the regional Arab Spring. For more than two years, Jordan has seen almost weekly demonstrations against corruption and for reform. The kingdom has at times been rocked by protests against economic austerity measures, including riots as recently as November 2012. Meanwhile, Jordan’s raging debates of political and economic change have taken place in the context of severe regional pressures, ranging from fears of a third Intifada in the Palestinian territories to even greater fears of the spillover into Jordan of the Syrian civil war. Even in the midst of its own severe economic crisis, the kingdom now hosts more than 400,000 Syrian refugees.

Mindful of the tumultuous changes around the region and across Jordan’s very borders, King Abdullah II has argued for a slow and deliberate reform process. He has even issued a series of political "discussion papers" about specific aspects of reform. Opponents, in contrast, see reform moving at a glacial pace at best or, at worst, claim that it amounts to much noise and movement but to no meaningful reform at all.

Nsour is well aware of these debates and challenges. He served only a few months in his first term as prime minister, but previously he had been twice elected to the lower house of parliament and twice appointed to the upper house (the senate). He has participated in several governments, including serving in multiple cabinet posts, such as minister for foreign affairs, industry and trade, education, planning, media and communication. But he became prime minister at a particularly difficult time. In his first term as prime minister, Nsour was charged with implementing a series of difficult and unpopular economic austerity measures, including removing fuel subsidies and allowing energy prices to rise in the middle of winter. He was also charged with carrying the country through its recent elections, based on an electoral law that he had voted against when he was a member of parliament.

Public expectations regarding the 2013 elections were low indeed, given widespread allegations of rigging in previous polls (especially in 2007 and 2010) and complaints about the un-representative nature of the electoral law itself. The new law maintained the much-despised one-person one-vote system for 108 out of 150 parliamentary seats. Other seats were reserved to guarantee minority representation (9 Christian seats, 3 Circassian and Chechen seats) and women’s representation (15 seats). The main change was the introduction of a proportional representation voting system and national lists for the remaining 27 seats.

On January 23, Jordan held elections for its 17th parliament. These were boycotted by the Muslim Brotherhood and its affiliated political party, the Islamic Action Front, as well as by several leftist parties and most of the Herak — that is, the local popular reform movements that have emerged in almost every city and town in the country over the last two years. While the regime insisted that the elections would be free and fair, and lead eventually to parliamentary governments in Jordan, many in the Jordanian opposition remained unconvinced. The elections, they charged, were sure to be rigged. The electoral law was flawed and unrepresentative. And the parliament itself was weak and ineffectual.

While the Independent Electoral Commission (IEC) attempted to address the first of these complaints, the other two remain among the largest reform questions facing Jordan — and its new prime minister. Abdelilah al-Khatib, head of the IEC, was tasked with explaining the new electoral system to voters, re-registering the entire country, and most importantly, with cleaning up the electoral process. In a country where charges of corruption are rampant, Khatib has a reputation for integrity and honesty. He took the job very seriously. In a matter of months the IEC managed to register more than 2 million Jordanian voters (admittedly often by allowing entire families to be registered at once), issued new voter cards, arranged for pre-printed ballots and two (transparent) ballot boxes to be at each polling station (gray for district representative votes and green for national list votes). Poll workers were trained, and thousands of domestic and international observers (including me) were invited to watch every stage of the process from the opening of polling stations through the counting and tabulation of votes.

The elections were not without problems, but compared to the previous several rounds, they were a marked improvement. To be clear: the electoral process was greatly improved, while the electoral system remains highly problematic and contested within Jordanian politics. Yet given the nature of the electoral law, and despite the IEC improvements, the new parliament was pre-destined to resemble the previous several. Most members of parliament (MPs) are well-to-do men, most are East Jordanians with extensive tribal links, and most ran as independents rather than as members of political parties. While most MPs are conservative, a few genuine progressives were also elected. Eighteen women also won seats, which is not an enormous number, but is a record high for Jordan. In addition to the 15 female MPs elected via the women’s quota, three other women won seats (one by leading a national list and two by winning their districts outright).  

Still, the electoral system and the system of governance remain key points of contestation in Jordanian politics, despite the very real improvements in the electoral process. Even a more free and fair electoral process, in other words, will count for little if the electoral law is not changed to be more representative of Jordanian society, or if power remains concentrated almost entirely in the monarchy. For most Jordanians, there is no contradiction here. Most support the monarchy, but they also reject cosmetic reform and strongly support greater pluralism and democratization in the kingdom. Shifting some power from the monarchy to parliament, the prime minister, and the cabinet would move reform beyond simply cleaner elections. This would also create conditions for greater accountability in governance via a more genuine separation of powers between branches of government.

If this moment in Jordan’s evolution (not revolution)
is indeed to be a milestone on the path to greater reform, rather than just a bump in the road, then the next step for the regime would be to convince a skeptical public that the elections, the parliament, and the new prime minister and government matter. The latter institutions also need to make themselves matter. The new parliament, unfortunately, essentially dropped the ball during consultations over a new prime minister. While some blocs and MPs nominated Nsour, many others avoided naming a specific candidate. Since most MPs have no party and no real platform, even the "blocs" that form in parliament tend to be temporary alliances based on personal connections. And many blocs and individual MPs seemed to prefer avoiding responsibility for naming a prime minister candidate, leaving the initiative back where it has always been: with the palace.

This only underscores the need to change the electoral system that produces such lackluster parliaments. There are several possibilities here: including moving beyond the unpopular "sawt wahid" or one-person one-vote system, changing from gerrymandered to equal districts, expanding the women’s quota still further, or changing the percentage of seats assigned via national lists and proportional representation (perhaps to include half the parliament). This last measure might create the conditions that both the king and many opposition groups have called for, such as building viable national political parties based on platforms rather than personalities or identity politics.

For the foreseeable future, Jordan will continue to be beset by crises of economic austerity, rising energy prices, refugee flows, and the dangers of regional unrest spilling further into the kingdom. But these can’t be allowed to curtail domestic political reform. Many changes are still needed (including removing restrictions on Jordan’s previously open approach to the internet and online media), but for Jordan’s new parliament and prime minister, dramatically changing the electoral law would be a good place to start.

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. He was an election observer in Jordan with the National Democratic Institute (NDI).