Voter apathy dampens interest in Jordanian elections

Sunday 11/09/2016
People are used to empty promises from previ­ous parliaments

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.”