The Middle East Channel

Déjà vu all over again?: Jordan’s 2010 elections

On Nov. 9, the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan held its sixth round of national parliamentary elections since 1989. Long before Jordanians went to the polls, the elections were immersed in controversy.  The new temporary electoral law announced in May had included few changes, and ceded little ground to opposition demands for greater reform. This, in ...


On Nov. 9, the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan held its sixth round of national parliamentary elections since 1989. Long before Jordanians went to the polls, the elections were immersed in controversy.  The new temporary electoral law announced in May had included few changes, and ceded little ground to opposition demands for greater reform. This, in turn, led to the announcement of an electoral boycott organized by the Muslim Brotherhood and its political party affiliate, the Islamic Action Front. As expected, many secular left activists joined their religious right counterparts in calling for a boycott. While the regime organized a vast get-out-the-vote campaign under the slogan "Let us hear your voice," many in the opposition countered with a campaign rejecting the "sawt wahid" or "one voice" system — that is, the "one person, one vote" electoral system that they see as undermining prospects for democratic opposition.

Last week’s election gave Jordan-watchers a definite feeling of déjà vu, as the 2010 elections seemed reminiscent of the 1997 campaign, with similar points of tension, similar government and opposition standoff, and similar results. Yet in other ways, election day signaled a déjà vu of a different sort, reminiscent of the 1989 political unrest that triggered the liberalization process in the first place. The violence and unrest which erupted on election day was centered mainly within the very East Jordanian communities that are usually seen as the bedrock foundations of the Hashemite regime itself. 

Jordan’s political liberalization process began in 1989 following widespread rioting in response to an IMF austerity program. Riots swept through several towns and cities especially in the south of Jordan, notably in East Bank Jordanian or Transjordanian communities. The regime responded with a revival of national elections for the lower house of the Jordanian parliament. The opposition scored impressive victories that totaled more than half the 80 parliamentary seats, including 34 seats for the Islamist movement. In 1993, the regime altered the electoral laws, shifting to a one-person, one-vote system, with uneven electoral districts, in a successful attempt to limit Islamist representation. Fed up with the process, the Islamist movement and 11 other opposition parties boycotted the 1997 polls.

The opposition returned to participate in the next rounds of elections in 2003 and 2007. Yet in each case there were allegations of vote rigging (the 2007 polls seemed particularly egregious), in addition to the now very familiar list of opposition complaints: the districts are gerrymandered to be uneven and unrepresentative, the voting system keeps political parties weak and marginalized, and even after elections, the government is not drawn from parliament itself, but appointed by the palace. The newest temporary election law addressed none of these concerns. It did expand the quota for women’s representation from six to 12 seats, and added several seats in mainly Palestinian urban districts (in Amman, Irbid, and Zarqa). But the core concerns of the democratic opposition — from the secular left to the religious right — were unanswered. Opposition activists vented their anger and frustration, while more reactionary elites made clear that they felt the regime was actually going too far in empowering Palestinians within Jordanian politics.

Perhaps most confusing was the introduction of multiple "sub-districts" within each of Jordan’s multi-member electoral districts. Candidates had to select one sub-district to run in, while voters could cast their votes in any of the sub-districts within their designated home districts. This, in turn, created an even more localized politics than usual. In addition to the confusion this seemed to create for voters, it also seemed to instigate ever harsher levels of competition within these micro-constituencies. As Andrew Barwig suggested in a pre-election analysis, "the establishment of sub-districts has dramatically affected how elites and tribes negotiate the boundaries of their electoral influence."  Indeed it has. And the resulting dynamics were not only conflictual, but at times even violent.

Jordan’s 2010 elections saw violence erupt in numerous towns and cities around the country, including Ajlun, Irbid, Jerash, Ma’an, Mafraq, and Zarqa. But since the opposition maintained a peaceful boycott of the polls, how could there be such dissent and unrest on election day?

As had been the case 21 years ago, the violence did not stem from Palestinian, Leftist, or Islamist opposition, but rather from within ethnic Transjordanian communities. It was, in short, loyalist on loyalist — or royalist on royalist — violence, and almost invariably linked to inter and intra-tribal tensions. And as was the case in 1989, that should be of concern to the regime itself. Incidents such as these have been on the rise in the last few years, as rural tribal disputes have spilled over into larger towns and cities, and this is in addition to the already rising tensions between Palestinian and East Bank Jordanians.

In the 2010 election (as in the last several elections) voters tended to use their sole vote in support of a relative, or member of their clan or tribe. One of the main arguments for multiple votes in multimember constituencies, in fact, was that it allowed voters to cast that more personalized vote, but that it also encouraged voters to then vote for parties, for policies, and for more specific platforms. But since 1993, the voting tendency has been quite the reverse: voting for tribal figures. This phenomenon has become so prevalent that many Jordanians view the parliament itself as a kind of tribal assembly, as though even upscale West Amman has somehow participated in the election of a Jordanian Loya Jirga.

But now, with the introduction of subdistricts, candidates were forced to compete for even smaller slices of the electorate. These in some cases pitted rival tribes against one another, but just as often provoked intra-tribe tensions, often along generational lines. Since tribes tend to organize as voting blocs, each voting group goes into election assuming its vast bloc of voters is assured of victory. Yet all other tribal voting blocs do precisely the same thing…and someone is going to lose. Most acts of violence over the polls emerged as the results were being posted, and supporters of losing candidates claimed fraud, attacking rivals, committing acts of arson, or clashing with the police.

Prime Minister Samir Rifa’i (whose grandfather was Prime Minister during the April 1989 riots) attempted to thwart unrest by allowing for greater transparency than in previous elections. The 2010 polls, for example, allowed for participation by Jordan’s own "Civil Coalition for Monitoring the 2010 Jordanian Parliamentary Elections," which deployed more than 1,600 election observers around the country. For the first time, the kingdom also permitted international election observers as well, including the National Democratic Institute and the International Republican Institute, among many others. Following the outbursts of violence, the Ministry of Interior posted full elections results (rather than just the winning candidates names), so that the full tallies were clearly visible for every district and sub-district.

Jordan’s new parliament, as expected, can be considered overwhelmingly loyalist, tribal, and Transjordanian. At least two-thirds of incoming MP’s are newcomers, as even some old loyalists lost to new loyalists. Given the lack of substantive policy debates in the electoral campaigns, the elections instead included fairly innocuous slogans but very large meeting tents, where candidates who could afford to do so dished out ample amounts of Jordan’s signature national dish, mensaf, and met with potential voters. Not surprisingly, the winning candidates tended to be either well-connected tribal figures or financially well-endowed business people.

No political party candidate won outside of a special quota seat, and the Left parties in particular felt sidelined by the costs of campaigning, the voting system, and the vote-buying practices of some other candidates. Abla Abu Elbeh, the secretary general of the Hashed Party (Hizb al-Sha’ab al-Dimuqrati) did manage to secure a seat as one of the 12 MP’s elected on the women’s quota. That quota also saw the election of the first woman from a bedouin district, Myassar al-Sardiyyah of the Northern Badia. Salma al-Rabadi won on the women’s quota, adding an extra seat for Christian representation in parliament. Independent Islamist Wafa Bani Mustafa (who defied the Islamist boycott) won a seat in her home district of Jerash. And Reem Badran, daughter of former Prime Minister Mudar Badran, became the first woman to win a seat outright — without the quota — meaning that there will be 13 rather than 12 women in the new Jordanian parliament. In short, while the numbers are small (13 out of 120 members of parliament), Jordan’s female MP’s comprise a very diverse group, representing very different backgrounds and viewpoints.

In contrast, aside from independent Islamist Wafa Bani Mustafa, Jordan’s large Islamist movement will remain unrepresented inside the dome of the Jordanian parliament. The Muslim Brotherhood and the Islamic Action Front can, perhaps, claim that their boycott worked, to the extent that it seems to have kept voter turnout low. Even the government’s own figures suggest overall turnout was around 53 percent. But the more glaring figures show in the now-familiar discrepancies in turnout between districts. In largely East Jordanian communities like Kerak, turnout was posted at 73 percent, and averaged around 80 percent in the Northern, Central, and Southern Badia (Bedouin) districts. In urban areas with large Palestinian populations, either the boycott or low feelings of efficacy and interest kept turnout down to a mere 33 percent in Zarqa and 34 in Amman itself.

By boycotting the elections, Jordan’s large Islamist movement can be counted among the losers at the polls, without even having contested them. They know this. And they knew the risks going in, precisely because of their boycott experience in 1997. Having boycotted those polls, the Islamist movement found itself outside parliament for several years, and had to find new ways — or perhaps revive old ways — to organize and maintain their own relevance. The Islamists did so largely by refocusing their energies on successfully winning elections to the leadership posts of most of Jordan’s professional associations. So they may not have had representation in government, but they did re-emerge through civil society organizations. Since Jordan’s Muslim Brotherhood is as old as the Hashemite regime itself, and since it began as a social movement long before creating a political party, this was a natural move, and will be again. In addition, the IAF intends to work with other groups, such as the leftist al-Wihda Party, to maintain an opposition coalition to press for greater reform despite their boycott of the polls.

Most Jordanian Islamists — both moderates and hardliners — agreed with the boycott, while knowing full-well the likely costs. This should make clear just how illegitimate they felt the previous 2007 polls were, how discriminatory they feel the new electoral law is, and also, how ineffectual they believe the parliament itself is. This is a key point not just for the Islamist movement, but also for democratic opposition throughout the kingdom: it’s not just about the electoral system; it’s also about the legislative system.

Is the parliament just a tribal assembly? Given the diverse nature of Jordan’s actual population, clearly it should not be. But it is clear that many Jordanians see the House of Representatives in precisely this way: as a bastion of tribal loyalists competing not for policy but for patronage. This is not just a function of public disaffection with the electoral rules. Rather, it is also a function of the role of parliament. Jordan’s royally-appointed governments initiate legislation which they then expect parliament to debate and pass. In short, the executive legislates, and the legislature is then expected to execute those decisions.

Despite the high levels of disagreement, lack of participation, and even violent unrest demonstrated on election day, most Jordanians are still looking for more substantial reform. The state focused on refining the act of voting, by modernizing and computerizing the process, attempting to cut back on electoral fraud (such as forged voter cards) and posting results online. But reformers and opposition figures of all stripes increasingly agree on a set of clear reforms: They want the parliament to be a body that actually legislates. They want government to be drawn from the elected representatives of the people. They want districts that are equal rather than gerrymandered, and many want to see the end of the one person, one vote electoral system. Most of these reforms have already been put forward in various forms — not just in opposition statements — but also in the regime’s own "National Agenda" for reform, which was echoed again more recently by the government-created National Center for Human Rights. In short, there is actually considerable consensus on more far-reaching change that would reform and actually stabilize the system.

In the aftermath of the 2010 elections, calls for greater change will grow stronger, not weaker, and will include ever larger numbers of people previously considered loyalist, royalist, and even "tribal" Transjordanians, who have already demonstrated their own disaffection with the electoral process and results.  Meanwhile, the regime should at least have the parliament it seemed to want: loyalist, royalist, tribal, and mostly Transjordanian. That also means, however, especially in the context of severe economic hardship in the Kingdom, that it will now be expected to deliver.  The patterns of violence on election day and the extent of the boycott suggest that time is of the essence.

Curtis R. Ryan 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.

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