The politics of apathy at Jordan elections

Jordan’s elite are struggling to convince the public to care about the election for the next parliament. Published in MEED, 20 January 2013

It has not been an easy start to the year for candidates in Jordan’s parliamentary elections. Amman Municipality was forced to remove hundreds of campaign posters in the first week of January as high winds swept across the capital, tearing the banners from lampposts and other street furniture and causing a hazard for pedestrians and drivers.

In the days that followed, roads and tunnels flooded in the capital after heavy rain and snow began falling on higher ground in other parts of the country. By 9 January, the snow had started falling on Amman too, making the task of canvassing voters all but impossible.

Speaking on that day Mousa Shteiwi, director of the Center for Strategic Studies (CSS) at the University of Jordan, said “The weather conditions have affected the campaign. In fact there is no campaign at the moment in the country, except perhaps informal meetings and communications. There is definitely no public campaign at this stage.”

The weather is forecast to be far better in the run-up to polling day on 23 January, which should prevent turnout from dropping too low, but in any case the meteorological problems are small compared to the bigger issues that Jordan faces. The country has struggled to maintain political and economic stability in recent years, relying on international aid to balance its books and a slow drip-feed of reforms and regular changes of government to appease protestors on the streets. There is little sense that the current election will move things along in any substantial way.

“If you look at the campaign posters it is the same faces and slogans as in 2007 and 2010, as if we are recycling the same elite,” says Oraib al-Rantawi, director of the Al-Quds Center for Political Studies in Amman. “Most of the candidates are running on a tribal and family basis without any serious social, economic or political agenda. This means that we will end up with a similar parliament to the previous one. At the grassroots level there is no election atmosphere; it is business as usual for the ordinary man on the street.”

His views chime with the findings of the US’ National Democratic Institute, which visited Jordan in November to conduct a pre-election assessment and found that “voter apathy remains widespread”.

Adding to the lack of enthusiasm for the election has been the calls for a boycott by some opposition groups including the Islamic Action Front, the Muslim Brotherhood’s political wing. They are unhappy with a change to the voting system for this election which, they say, favours groups loyal to the regime.

The voting system, which was revised last year, gives 27 seats in the lower house, the House of Representatives, to candidates from a national list, with the remaining 123 seats filled by candidates chosen in 45 electoral districts around the country. Jordanians have two votes, one to select their constituency candidate and another for a party on the national list.

It is unclear what impact the boycott will have on turnout, but the number of people who registered to vote was just 2.28 million, according to the Independent Elections Commission. That is lower than in any of the three previous elections, despite the voting-age population continuing to grow.

In an attempt to counter the boycott, senior members of the establishment have been urging all Jordanians to take part. At a meeting of women’s groups organised by the Jordanian National Commission for Women on 6 January, for example, Prime Minister Abdullah Ensour set out his argument for full participation.“There is no life for any nation unless there is democracy and democracy comes through one channel: voting,” he said. “Any group or party should not dream of ruling unless they do it through the ballot box. Once the opposition groups reach parliament, then they can change the Elections Law.

King Abdullah II has been getting involved too. In a speech on 23 October in Amman, he said “If you want to change Jordan for the better, there is a chance, and that chance is the upcoming election, and there is a way, and that way is through the next parliament.”

Two months later the king announced that he would release a series of discussion papers outlining his thoughts about the political reform process in the kingdom. The aim, according to the palace, was to facilitate national dialogue and encourage citizens’ participation in decision-making. The first paper was published in late December and dealt with the issue of democracy.

It remains to be seen how many Jordanians will heed the advice of their leaders and go to the polls, however. An opinion poll of 2,990 people conducted by the CSS in September found that 56.6 per cent of Jordanians planned to participate in the election, compared to 37.5 per cent who said they would not. Older Jordanians were far more likely to be keen to vote than younger ones. Another opinion poll carried out by CSS since the start of this year, which has not yet been formally released, found that 55 per cent of registered voters intended to turn up at the polling stations on 23 January.

These figures are in line with other recent elections in Jordan, where turnout has ranged between 47 and 58 per cent, according to the Stockholm-based International Institute for Democracy & Electoral Assistance.

Even if the turnout does prove to be lower this time around, it may have less to do with the boycott and more to do with apathy towards the political system and other issues.

“I don’t think the opposition boycotting the election will affect the number of voters on a large scale, because voting according to the current electoral system is motivated by tribal and family agendas, not by political factors,” says Al-Rantawi. “That is the most important force in the elections and I don’t think it will change this time. Public opinion is not very enthusiastic for the elections. The public perception is that the election and the parliament will make no difference.”

The question of what, if anything, will change once all the votes have been cast and counted is a key one for the country. The king has repeatedly called for Jordan to move towards a parliamentary democracy. In an interview on 5 December with two local newspapers, Al-Rai and the Jordan Times, he said “we seek to reach a stage where a parliamentary coalition that enjoys a house majority forms the government.”

The speed at which that might happen has been left unstated, however, and even after the current election Jordan will still be some distance from that position. Although there are national lists, the vast majority of MPs are standing as independents. Some of them may coalesce into voting blocs in the new parliament, but the country has not yet reached a stage where clearly defined political parties compete with each other on the basis of different policy platforms.

Shteiwi thinks that might start to change as a result of this election, but it is likely to be a long process.

“I think we might have at least 4 to 5 coalitions formed in the new parliament,” he says. We’ll still have a significant number of independents; they will probably be the largest number, but also a significant number of political party members, which is a new development for the Jordanian parliament. There are some drawbacks, but we should give the new parliament the benefit of the doubt and not prejudge the performance of people.”

Even once the new MPs begin to grapple with the need to find common ground in the next parliament, what seems certain is that the country’s economy will still struggle and protests on the streets outside will also continue.

The government is facing a large budget deficit this year. In his 5 December interview, the king said that the disruption to gas supplies from Egypt had cost the country $5bn to date and had added to the deficit and the public debt. Indeed, with its predicted revenues the government cannot even cover its current expenditure needs, let alone its capital expenditure plans. As a result, Amman has had to rely on hand-outs from regional allies to help it through, but it has also been forced to lift subsidies on fuel.

That has provoked public demonstrations and there will be more as the government looks for other ways to address its weak fiscal position. Other protests are also likely around issues such as corruption, and the new voting system. However, the protest movement is not necessarily all that unified, which will give any new government some room for manoeuvre at least.

“I think the pressure for reform will continue, but it is still weak. It is not enough to convince the government to accelerate,” agrees Al-Rantawi.

In such a scenario it is difficult to blame Jordanians if they appear somewhat apathetic to the politicians and elections.