Voter apathy dampens interest in Jordanian elections
AMMAN - Jordanian politicians tout parliamentary elections, scheduled for September 20th, as a step towards wider public participation in decision-making that will see future prime ministers elected by a parliamentary majority.
However, apathy is apparent among potential voters, who have seen little accomplished towards enacting reforms promised to improve living conditions and ease a strain caused by the influx of 1.5 million refugees from Syria and tens of thousands of others from Iraq, Libya and Yemen.
Jordan is barren of natural resources. Its cash-strapped economy is in tatters, weighed down by heavy borrowing that is nearly 90% of its gross domestic product (GDP). Unemployment, poverty and inflation are on the rise. Its neighbours are grappling with civil wars and militant violence that have sent a stream of refugees seeking shelter in Jordan and militants trying to penetrate borders.
Political analyst Nabil Gheishan said “popular frustration is prevailing because people are used to empty promises from the previous parliaments and to a lack of transparency by successive governments.
“People are also more preoccupied with wars and tensions around them and they’re indeed worried how to provide for their children amid regional political upheavals and domestic economic deterioration.”
Jordanian officials said the election was a step towards reforms that will — several years down the road — have the country’s monarch take the back seat as parliament runs the daily affairs of the state and acts as a supervisory body to the cabinet.
In the past five years, Jordan has amended about half of its constitution to strip its kings of some powers, handing them to parliament.
One of the changes is to have prime ministers elected by a parliamentary majority, replacing the long-standing process of premiers being appointed by Jordanian kings.
Sceptics, however, said they are leery of having the king assuming more power under the changes, even if that was only temporarily. He was given the right to appoint the head of the paramilitary police force, members of the constitutional court and the crown prince. Prior to that, the king required the prime minister and certain ministers to recommend these critical nominees.
Government officials insist that the monarchy will lose more powers as the process of democratisation takes hold. They insist that Jordan wants to ensure that its status as a relatively placid and secure Arab nation would not be risked by chaos that could be created by a sudden change.
However, as Election Day approaches, apathy is becoming clearer.
In Amman, Jordanians walked past hundreds of banners, unmoved by calls from parliamentary aspirants urging them to “perform your national duty in casting your ballot”. Candidates promise improved living conditions, including better wages and more jobs.
“It’s not in their hands,” Khaled Hajjaj, 47, said, calling parliament a “rubber stamp” while pointing at the leaflets that show contestants’ portraits with a one-sentence slogan underneath it.
“Our successive parliaments were too docile and often yielded to government policies dictated upon them,” he said. “The outcome of the next election is not going to be any different.”
The Washington-based International Republican Institute said an April poll it conducted in Jordan showed that 87% of Jordanians were sceptical of their legislature, saying that parliament had not had one praiseworthy accomplishment during its 2013-16 term.
A poll by the Jordan-based independent Civil Coalition for Monitoring Elections published July 10th showed a larger share of Jordanians (39.5%) intend to boycott the elections than said they plan to vote (31.5%). Suspicion of dishonesty in the legislative branch fuelled mistrust in the elections.
Under a white plastic tent pitched on a street corner in an Amman upscale district, six candidates running on one ticket ate Arabic sweets and sipped dark spiced coffee as they outlined their plans in parliament to constituents, who filled about one-third of the 300 seats under the tent.
“Parliament is a talk shop. I like that. Isn’t democracy all about that, talking?” joked Mohammed Saadeh, a 25-year-old banker, who said he will vote for his former university professor.
Elsewhere, in a smoke-filled traditional coffee shop in Amman, women gathered to support a female candidate. In the crowd, Sajida Abu Atta, a 37-year-old Amman secretary, said she would vote for a female neighbour. “I promised her I would,” she said.
A total of 1,264 candidates have applied to stand for the polls on 230 lists, vying for the 130 seats in the lower house of parliament, also known as the Chamber of Deputies. The Elections Law allows contestants to withdraw from the race up to ten days before the polls.
The Islamic Action Front, the political arm of the disbanded Muslim Brotherhood, was also fielding candidates to contest the elections after boycotting the polls the past two terms.
Women, who comprise 49% of Jordan’s population of 6.6 million, are reserved 15 seats. Despite what women describe as difficult to penetrate a man’s world, at least three women, who are running as part of lists dominated by men, are expected to win seats outside the government-set quota.
Jordan has been seeking to unify its 33 splintered political parties — with archaic ideologies, such as Communist, Ba’athist and Arab nationalists — into two or three mainstream political groups that would contest future elections based on party platforms. To avoid engaging the shattered parties in the upcoming elections, Jordan introduced lists that unified aspirants with similar outlooks on one ticket.
Abdullah Nuqrosh, a political science professor at the University of Jordan, said the adopted procedure could confuse the electorate.
“If we want to consolidate a multiparty system as we say, we should’ve allowed the parties to contest the elections,” Nuqrosh said. “With the current system, we may not have blocs with majority seats, thus undermining chances of electing a prime minister from a parliamentary majority.”