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Case Analysis 06 March, 2013

Political Reforms and Parliamentary Elections in Jordan: The Trials and Tribulations of Forming a New Government

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The Unit for Political Studies

The Unit for Political Studies is the Center’s department dedicated to the study of the region’s most pressing current affairs. An integral and vital part of the ACRPS’ activities, it offers academically rigorous analysis on issues that are relevant and useful to the public, academics and policy-makers of the Arab region and beyond. The Unit for Policy Studies draws on the collaborative efforts of a number of scholars based within and outside the ACRPS. It produces three of the Center’s publication series: Situation Assessment, Policy Analysis, and Case Analysis reports. 


Following elections held on January 23, Jordan has been the scene of deliberations on the formation of a new cabinet for more than three weeks now, with the incoming government unlikely to be formed before the second week of March. The efforts and time expended in the formation of this new government is unprecedented in Jordanian history. Previously, Jordanians had become so used to turnovers in government that such changes had become routine[1]. Yet now, for the first time in more than 50 years, the Chamber of Deputies* is expected to have a role in the naming of the Prime Minister, and an even more significant role in the nomination of ministers to join the new cabinet.

At the outset of 2011, a protest movement and a number of groups within the political opposition began to demand a series of constitutional reforms. These have focused on the need to increase the Chamber of Deputies' powers; to protect the Chamber from dissolution; and to allow for the formation of parliamentary governments. In addition to demands for constitutional reform, those participating in the protests were also unanimous in their demand for a new electoral law which would overcome the one-vote-per-ballot[2] system, and introduce a limited number of Deputies elected through proportional representation. In response to these popular demands the regime formulated its own program of political reform, the features of which began to take shape toward the end of the summer of 2011. The inclusion of parliamentary blocs in deliberations on the formation of a government was one move intending to show the regimes' commitment to the promises it undertook.

The government, however, needed to ensure that it would be in control of the trajectory of the reform process, and that the process would reflect the regime's own vision and understanding of reform.  In the end, neither the constitutional compromises made by the regime, nor the amended electoral law fulfilled the ambitions of the opposition forces and the protestors. Even the regime's move to bring the Chamber of Deputies into the discussions on the selection of a Prime Minister will be used to secure the regime's goals.  

Chief among these goals was showing that the government was sincere in a promise made while promoting its reform plan: future cabinets would be based on deliberations with the elected Chamber. Involving Jordan's parliament in the formation of cabinets would also give the impression that the regime has responded to the demands for parliamentary government. In other words, it shows that the government's reforms had surpassed the demands made by the opposition movement and the protestors. Equally, involving parliament in the formation of cabinets means that a majority bloc within the parliament would shoulder some of the responsibility for decisions made by the executive. This has particular importance as some of the expected economic decisions required to reduce the deficit in the state's coffers would not likely meet with popular approval. Previously, public anger had been mainly directed at the Royal Palace, the cabinets it appointed and the institutions which these controlled.

Important as this change may be, parliamentary involvement in the formation of cabinets is not likely to produce a government which differs meaningfully from those which preceded it. The cabinet-to-be therefore cannot be expected to resemble what would normally be defined in other countries as a "parliamentary government". This inability on the part of the Chamber to impose significant change stems from the electoral procedures in place, and specifically the electoral law.


Credible Parliamentary Elections Devoid of Political Meaning

Jordan's last parliamentary elections did not bring about major surprises in the composition of the Chamber of Deputies. The elections were boycotted by the Muslim Brotherhood, the country's most organized political party and the one with the greatest level of public influence. The polls were also boycotted by the National Reform Front, most of the groups within the popular protest movement and a number of leftist political parties. The boycott was a protest against both the stipulation in the electoral law that each ballot cast in a multi-member constituency would only carry a single vote, and the relatively small margin of Deputies elected through proportional representation. Consequently, the last elections were devoid of partisan political competition, let alone any debates on ideas and political platforms.

Most of the groups that took part did so timidly, presenting only a limited number of candidates. In fact, none of the participating parties could have secured a parliamentary majority even if all of their candidates had won since no single group had even nominated enough candidates to fill a majority of the 150 seats that were contested.

None of the candidates in the elections had an actual political platform. Instead, the criterion for the selection of candidates was the candidates' level of clan-based, traditional support. Consequently, these political groups' candidates ran individual campaigns which made use of their clan-based and other traditionalist forms of support. A review of the campaign pledges enunciated by most of the candidates reveals that for the most part, these campaigns did not echo the sentiments of protestors in Jordan or throughout other Arab countries.

Since none of the candidates displayed a clear position on the way in which the country should be run, their campaigns focused on their personal qualities and qualifications, banking on traits such as "trustworthiness", "sincerity" and "the ability to express citizens' concerns to the government". Such an approach reduces parliament to an intermediary between the executive and voters, instead of an authority tasked with laying out public policies for the country as a whole.

The above developments did not worry the regime, which all along had sought, and achieved, two major objectives by holding the elections. The first was to limit the impact of the boycott by major political blocs and the second was to regain public trust in the possibility of elections being held without interference by the state's organs, particularly the security apparatus.

With over two-thirds of legally eligible voters registering, 56 percent of them actually cast their ballots, a satisfactory figure for the government in comparison to previous figures. Undoubtedly, prolonging and easing voter registration procedures, in addition to the government's promotional media campaign played a crucial role in the achievement of the regime's success. This was heightened by the fact that those parties which boycotted the elections adopted a passive boycott campaign, limited to demands for non-registration of voters, and lacked a comprehensive, convincing strategy to dissuade citizens from casting their ballots.

The regime's aim of increasing voter turnout was accomplished partly because of the relatively high number (61) of electoral blocs which put candidates forward for the seats decided by proportional representation. Likewise, a number of measures taken by Jordan's Independent Electoral Commission, tasked with supervising the election, encouraged the belief that the vote rigging seen in 2007 and 2010 would not be repeated. These measures included the publication of voters' lists; the use of invisible ink and localized vote counting procedures and other techniques reassuring voters of anonymity; and allowing local and international observers a wide margin of freedom. 


The Electoral Law and the Dominance of Traditional Voting Patterns

Along with the absence of politics from the electoral campaign, the electoral law also served to instill traditionalist, clan-based and de-politicized voting patterns throughout the entire electoral process. The January, 2013 parliamentary elections were held according to an electoral law which divided the Chamber of Deputies' 150 seats into two categories. The first 123 seats, about 85 percent of the total, were divided across 48 electoral constituencies. When choosing a constituency-level representative, citizens could give their vote to a single candidate-regardless of the number of contested seats representing that voter's district. The remaining 27 seats in the Chamber were given over to a second category, where Deputies were chosen according to a nation-wide, proportional representation poll in which various electoral lists competed. 

This introduction of proportional representation, albeit partial, represents a novelty in comparison to previous elections, in which all of the candidates were chosen through their constituencies. Nonetheless, this change did not translate into an improvement in electoral representation. In addition to a boycott by a number of opposition movements, the limited number of candidates selected according to proportional representation indicated that the composition of the Chamber would be determined by the results of polling in multi-member constituencies. It also transpired that even those electoral lists which competed in the proportional representation poll were not formed on political bases, but were rather the result of personal entente between the individuals who formed them.

The people who helped forge these electoral lists had worked to rally a number of individuals with strong clan-based or other traditionalist, support networks. In other words, a vote for a given electoral list was merely the sum of the votes garnered for each of the members of that list within that candidate's own community.

Each electoral list in fact worked to build up a roster of candidates, each of whom represented a segment of Jordanian society, a country of origin (Palestinians versus East Bankers), or a specific Governorate. Given that such factors decided the composition of nation-wide electoral lists, it comes as no surprise that the electoral lists represented collections of individual, locally-based candidates rather than nation-wide blocs brought together by political considerations.

Two electoral blocs, which had participated in the proportional representation vote, based their campaigns on political platforms. Yet in both cases their rhetoric played on the divisions between Jordanian nationals according to their country of origin. These two groups worked to incite parochial sentiments, and the mutual fear felt between the two main segments constituting Jordanian society. Combined, the two electoral lists in question received a total of less than 1.8% of the vote. Not only does this figure represent a failure of these groups' rhetoric, it can also be taken to reflect the negligible number of voters who identify with political movements founded on country of origin bases, be they East Bank Jordanians or Palestinian Jordanians.

The single-vote-per-ballot system has contributed, over the past twenty years, to the creation of electoral patterns which accentuate traditional loyalties amongst voters. These patterns emphasize clan and other traditional forms of identity politics, to the detriment of candidates whose campaigns were of a nation-wide, political nature. The re-division of the electoral constituencies within Jordan during 2003 into smaller districts further exacerbated this situation,[3] heightening the impact of voting along traditionalist lines, particularly in the countryside and in small towns. In addition to entrenching traditionalist electoral choices, the reduction in the size of electoral districts and the adoption of a one-vote-per-ballot system also helped re-engineer Jordanian society along traditionalist lines.

Thus, voting behavior during the elections was not motivated by a view of the Chamber of Deputies as a separate authority with the power to legislate, and oversee the executive, granting or withholding confidence from it. Rather, the electoral process encouraged the perception of the Chamber of Deputies as an intermediary between the executive and the people, one that helped to funnel voters' demands and limit them to the constituency level, substituting political demands with requests for greater privileges.

It would be fair to conclude that these last elections, just as in previous polls, were held hostage to parochial considerations. In some cases, this meant that clans and similar groups held primary elections to agree on a single candidate who would represent all of the group's members, whether that group was a clan or a "Home Town League" or another similar group.[4]

With most candidates reliant on traditional societal support bases, they in turn, became bound to the balance of powers between traditionalist forces within their constituencies. Consequently, a majority of the Deputies elected are representative of such traditionalist power bases, and cannot be held accountable to any political platforms.

In light of this predicament, the Jordanian public proceeded as follows:

1) Voters who boycotted the elections as a conscious decision to respond to the call for a protest by groups in the opposition.

2) Voters who opted out of participation on the grounds that the elections were meaningless and that the legislature could not bring about fundamental changes to political life.

3) Voters who decided to take part in the elections and whose choices were defined by regional, clan-based and other considerations related to traditionalist identities.

None of the parliamentary blocs in this new, incoming Chamber constitute genuine political entities. These blocs, formed rapidly in the aftermath of the elections, coalesced around least common denominators of mutual agreement between their members.  They rely more on the personal and social synergies between their members than on questions of policy. As a result, the resilience of these blocs depends on their ability to tolerate members' policy deviations, and on unbridling those members' capacity to provide their voters with services.

A Chamber composed in such a manner cannot be expected to formulate forthright political agendas, draft legislation, address the democratic transition or efficiently oversee the executive, far less form a cabinet. Indeed, the first ten days of discussions led by the Head of the Royal Court with parliamentary blocs suggest that none of these Deputies are in a hurry to put a candidate forward as Prime Minister. So far they seem more concerned with a set of vague attributes which they feel a Prime Minister should enjoy rather than naming a candidate.


In the Aftermath of the Elections

Despite an opposition boycott, the Jordanian regime succeeded in holding elections with a reasonable voter turnout. The regime also succeeded in calming the fears of most Jordanians that the January 2013 elections would be subject to state interference. Holding deliberations with the Chamber of Deputies on the formation of a government was in and of itself a novelty to the norms of cabinet formation.

This success on the part of the regime in pushing its own agenda forward was the result of the balance of powers between the regime and the opposition-led political protest movement. As it stood, it was a balance which could not have possibly compelled the regime to acquiesce to fundamental political concessions. The lack of coordination and complementarity between the various factions which made up the protest movement, and the movement's breakdown into a series of local and sectorial protest groups each promoting their own interests, made the government's job easier. It remains true that the forces within the opposition lack a unified agenda, or strategies and plans of action on which they all agree. In addition, internal divisions, which have recently come to light within the Muslim Brotherhood in Jordan are weakening the organization and threatening it with possible division.

Ultimately, one fundamental obstacle Jordan's political regime will have to face is that its prospective partner in the implementation of its version of reform is a parliament with no political authority, and which does not meaningfully represent the people.  It is likely the Chamber of Deputies will prove unable to enhance the regime's political legitimacy, and potentially risks becoming a liability to the regime in the event of any political crises. The regime may now have to reach out to those forces within the political opposition which can guarantee the success of the government's reform program and invest that program with legitimacy.

 


 


[1] No fewer than eleven cabinets have been formed in the last decade. Each of these governments was reshuffled at least once, with five of them being formed and dismissed in the space of two and a half years.

* Sometimes referred to as the "House of Representatives", this is the lower, elected house in Jordan's bi-cameral parliament.

[2] The single-vote-ballot system was introduced to Jordan in 1993, with voters' choices being restricted to a single candidate regardless of the number of seats being contested within a constituency.

[3] In 1989, Jordan was divided into 21 electoral districts, increasing to 48 in 2001. All Governorates in Jordan contain a single electoral constituency, with the exception of Amman and Irbid which include several districts. 

[4] As an example of how this had an effect, the candidate who won the seat reserved for Chechens and Circassians in the Zarqa Governorate won his seat uncontested. After being nominated unanimously by the Chechen Clan Council, a decision later supported by the equivalent Circassian body, nobody other than that candidate ran for the relevant seat.

 

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**This article was translated by the ACRPS Translation and English Editing Department. The original Arabic version can be found here.