Jordan’s election to yield parliament of conservative incumbents

Sunday 18/09/2016
Turbulence ahead?

AMMAN - Jordanians head to the polls September 20th to elect a new parliament, a vote laud­ed as a step towards over­hauling the system of pow­er-sharing and giving the people a wider participation in decision-making.

Analysts predict the election will produce only a handful of candi­dates elected to parliament for the first time. The bulk, according to surveys, is expected to be con­servative politicians from previous parliaments winning re-election. At least 254 of 1,252 candidates vy­ing for parliament’s 130 seats are former lawmakers.

Critics argue that the expected victory of conservatives is due in part to a confusing electoral law, weak and fragmented political par­ties and voter apathy, which will ef­fectively allow tribal identities and individual personalities — rather than ideologies or political plat­forms — to dominate the polls.

Perhaps the most significant de­velopment would be Islamists affil­iated with the Islamic Action Front (IAF) — the political arm of the splintered fundamentalist Muslim Brotherhood — staging a comeback and winning the largest bloc in par­liament, Jordanian electoral offi­cials admit in private.

The elections are seen as a ba­rometer of popular sentiment, frustrated by a domestic economic crunch and civil wars and militant violence in neighbouring coun­tries, but that will really have a lit­tle effect because in Jordan gerry­mandering ensures that tribal East Bank Bedouins — who form the bedrock of support for the ruling Hashemite dynasty — get the lion’s share of seats in parliament.

At most, IAF will win 33 seats, about 25% of the elected Chamber of Deputies, the lower house of parliament, IAF leader Abdul Ma­jeed Thneibat said.

“This is an accurate estimate based on real data from a hive of strategists and statisticians calcu­lating campaigns and polls,” said Thneibat, who said his group field­ed 70 candidates on 20 lists in 15 of Jordan’s 23 electoral districts.

Officials with the independent Electoral Commission, insisting on anonymity, said their estimate is that IAF may end up with 10-15 seats in parliament. Though the number is much less than IAF’s projections, it is far from the near­est rivals among right-wing, na­tionalist and leftist parties who are likely to muster only a few seats.

Local authorities sought to stack the ballot against IAF by reserving a disproportionate number of seats for groups such as Christians, Cir­cassians and Chechens, as well as women but the IAF outwitted them by reaching out to the minorities. There are at least five Christians on IAF’s list.

Still, there may be some benefits to getting the Islamists on board. More poor, unemployed and frus­trated young Jordanians are lean­ing towards the Islamic State (ISIS) militants. Some Jordanian jihadists who fought alongside the group in Syria and Iraq are returning home. In 2016, there were at least three at­tacks on Jordanian security blamed on ISIS. Jordanian courts say there are more than 588 militants, most­ly young Jordanians on trial for ISIS-related conspiracies.

And, despite foreign aid to assist cash-strapped Jordan to deal with an influx of more than 1.5 million Syrian refugees and tens of thou­sands of others from Iraq, Libya and Yemen, Jordan’s moribund economy is sliding towards bank­ruptcy. Public debt has climbed from 82% of gross domestic prod­uct (GDP) in 2014 to 94% in 2016.

“The presence of Islamists in parliament will bode well with any future government plans to sell painful cuts in subsidies, if backed by a government with broad rep­resentation,” said Abdul-Kareem Dughmi, a liberal ex-lawmaker.

Jordan clamped down on the Muslim Brotherhood after its local leaders adopted fiery anti-govern­ment positions, taking advantage of the victory of the mother group in Egypt. The Jordanian crackdown, which continued through 2016, re­sulted in splitting the Brotherhood into two groups: Hawks who were eventually banned and doves who were licensed and given the Broth­erhood’s name.

IAF, Jordan’s largest and most organised opposition party, stayed away from the two latest elections in protest of a government-drafted electoral law it claimed reduced votes in its favour. The law has since been changed at least five times.

Elections expert Walid Hosni said the law’s latest version was no better, however.

“The new law hinders a suffi­cient political and representational diversity to voters, which means the outcome will be a docile parlia­ment eyed by voters with suspicion and sometimes mockery,” Hosni said.

Hosni also blamed the country’s 50 licensed political parties, which have consistently been very weak and unpopular due to both struc­tural obstacles and cultural atti­tudes, for the tumult. Of the 1,252 candidates contesting the elec­tions, only 222 are affiliated with IAF and other political parties.

It would seem that the election law’s requirement that candidates run on lists could boost political party participation but tribal iden­tities and individual personalities are likely to dominate the elections rather than ideologies or political platforms.

Hosni said the election would employ an “open list proportional representation system” for the first time. However, the “complexity of this law may adversely impact vot­er turnout and significant amounts of ballots could potentially be in­validated because they are com­pleted incorrectly”, he said.

There are 4.2 million eligible voters, of whom 1.7 million are ex­pected to cast a ballot. Elections of­ficials said apathy may keep many away, especially since a vast major­ity of the electorate is preoccupied by bread-and-butter issues, over­whelmed by refugees and anxious of mounting violence around Jor­dan, more than the patriotic slo­gans of candidates pledging to de­fend Jerusalem’s al Aqsa mosque.

Voter turnout for this election is a concern. When the Washington-based International Republican Institute (IRI) conducted its latest poll on Jordanian public opinion in April, only 38% of respondents said that they were likely to vote in the elections, down from 47% in May 2015.

The result is in line with an Au­gust poll by Jordan’s Phenix Centre for Economic and Informatics Stud­ies, in which 38.9% of respondents stated an intent to vote. When the Phenix Centre asked those not in­tending to vote why they were abstaining, a plurality — 30.5% — cited dissatisfaction with the pre­vious parliament’s performance. Only 5% of IRI’s poll respondents said the outgoing parliament had accomplished anything commend­able.

Jordan has said the elections were a step towards further democ­racy, in which the monarchy would start handing over some of its ab­solute powers to parliament. The government said, as a first step, it hoped that the polls would lead to electing a prime minister from a parliamentary majority, ending the monopoly of Jordanian kings to ap­point premiers.

For Hosni, the upcoming parlia­ment may not lead to the election of a prime minister.

“The small and scattered blocs in parliament with no political platforms are likely to resort to the king to help out by picking one for them,” he said.