Worried about economy, Jordanians go to the polls Tuesday

There have been some calls on social media to postpone the elections, but the government has said the vote will go ahead.
Monday 09/11/2020
A Jordanian election official checks ballot boxes for the parliamentary elections to be held on November 10. REUTERS
A Jordanian election official checks ballot boxes for the parliamentary elections to be held on November 10. (REUTERS)

AMMAN --Voters in coronavirus-battered Jordan go to the polls Tuesday in an election focused on the Arab country’s economic crisis which has been heightened by the devastating pandemic.

Resource-poor and dependent on foreign aid, in particular from the International Monetary Fund (IMF), public debt in the small country of 10 million people — which is also hosting more than one million Syrian refugees — exceeds 100 percent of GDP.

And unemployment was running at 23 percent in the first quarter of 2020.

Voters’ apathy

“This vote is different, with people in greater distress because of the epidemic,” said Oraib Rintawi of the Al-Quds Centre for Political Studies. Coronavirus has claimed more than 1,180 lives from over 104,800 cases in Jordan, according to health ministry data.

However, Rintawi doubted there would be a high turnout because “most Jordanians think parliament plays a marginal role in the political system”, as the formation of governments in the kingdom is not party-based or dependent on the outcome of the vote.

There have been some calls on social media to postpone the elections, but the government has said the vote will go ahead.

Parliament was already dissolved in late September ahead of the vote, and under the law new elections must be held within four months.

Jordanian Minister of Political and Parliamentary Affairs Musa Al-Maaytah insisted Friday it would be better to hold the vote now than in a few months time.

Campaign posters of candidates for the upcoming Jordanian parliamentary elections line a street in the capital Amman.(AFP)
Campaign posters of candidates for the upcoming Jordanian parliamentary elections line a street in the capital Amman.(AFP)

“Economic, political and social life must continue,” he added.

King Abdullah II last month named veteran diplomat Bisher al-Khasawneh as prime minister ahead of the vote, after parliament reached the end of its term.

“People will vote along tribal lines, for a candidate from their clan or for representatives who will provide them with services,” not for political reasons, Rintawi said.

Some 4.5 million people eligible to vote will cast their ballots for candidates to fill 130 seats in parliament, 15 of them reserved for women, from a field of 1,674 candidates running on 294 lists.

Security forces are also expected to fan out across the country’s 1,880 polling stations.

Populist campaigns

Virus curbs banning gatherings of more than 20 people have prevented traditional shows of patronage such as candidates’ tents offering Arabic sweets and coffee.

However in recent days, the kingdom’s streets quickly turned into a gallery of banners and billboards featuring unlikely promises, cliches and flirtations.

The Jordanian Elections Commission set the campaign period for the country’s House of Representatives for October 6-November 9, with elections to be held November 10.

In their campaigns, candidates focused on plans to alleviate Jordanians’ suffering. Many used slogans aimed at attracting the sympathy of the electorate, as well as promises to improve economic conditions, strengthen youth and women’s empowerment and eliminate unemployment.

Desperately trying to mobilise voters, the Islamic Action Front, political branch of the Muslim Brotherhood, resorted to a populist discourse, pledging “to work to defend people’s rights, dignity and livelihood, and to confront corruption.”

Also in the running for four-year terms in parliament are representatives of the country’s main tribal clans, independents, leftists and a large number of wealthy businessmen.

Amr al-Nowaisah, director of Jordan’s election monitoring programme, said candidates had largely failed to come up with serious proposals to resolve the country’s myriad crises.

“The electoral campaign phrases include promises but fails to mention programmes and mechanisms to achieve these promises,” Nowaisah said, criticising candidates’ pledges to end the national debt without outlining a realistic programme and economic reform plans that could be implemented.

A focus on economic hardships

Jordan has taken an economic hammering from Covid-19 with some $3 billion lost in vital tourism revenues in the first nine months of 2020.

Campaigning for the legislative elections was also forced to switch to videos posted on social media platforms, especially Facebook.

Saleh al-Armouti, a former Islamist deputy, put the focus squarely on economic hardships in a campaign video.

“Our poor country can no longer feed itself because of the hegemony” of the IMF, he said.

Official statistics show the poverty rate has increased to 15.7 percent, a rate which the World Bank forecasts will rise sharply because of the novel coronavirus pandemic.

The kingdom faces an uphill task to revive growth in an economy that is expected to shrink by around 6% this year as it grapples with its worst economic crisis in many years.