Despite some misgivings the Hashemite Kingdom has kept its date with elections. Almost a year after the untimely abolition of the last parliament, elections for 16th parliament took place on 9 November. Elections in the Middle East mostly are about maintaining the hold of ruling establishment that comprises of de facto hereditary presidents, monarchs and ruling families in the nom-de-guerre of democracy. As a result, one cannot expect much to change merely through one ballot. Nevertheless, in terms of gradual and incremental changes, elections serve as an indicator of possibilities.
This was the fourth parliamentary election since King Abdullah-II ascended to the throne in February 1999. The Jordanian Parliament called Majlis al-Umma is a bicameral body. The 120-member House of Representatives or Majlis al-Nuwaab is elected for a four-year term. The Senate or Majlis al-Aayan is a 55 member body appointed by the King. As is the case with other such bodies in the region, the Jordanian legislature lacks real powers. Symptomatic of the body politic in the region, it is the Jordanian King who appoints the members of the Senate, chooses the prime minister and cabinet, and can dissolve parliaments he dislikes. However, the relative stability and peace in the country have compensated for lack of democratic and participative governance.
A controversialfeature of Jordanian elections has been the peculiar form of gerrymandering that ensures that more seats go to the population groups loyal to the Hashemite rule. Centres with higher population send equal to or even lesser number of members to parliament than those areas where population is less and comprises mostly of tribes loyal to the royal family. The issue of under-representation of the Palestinian populated regions has been a prominent issue and recurrent theme in the Jordanian politics.
Earlier this year, the King had promised that these elections would be a model of transparency, fairness and integrity. Some changes were initiated in election rules and administrative procedures and machinery were aimed at bringing further participation in the country’s governance. The total number of seats was increased from 110 to 120, quota for women was increased to 12 and the underrepresented areas such as Amman, Irbid and Zarqa were granted four additional seats. Some sceptics had doubted how the well-intentioned changes initiated by the King in the electoral rules and procedures would bring in any significant departure from the past.
In these elections, a total of 763 candidates, including 143 women, contested for 120 seats (including 24 seats reserved for women and minorities). Out of Jordan’s 2.4 million eligible voters, nearly 53 percent exercised their franchise and this was slightly lower than the 58.9 percent turnout in 2007. For the first time in the country’s history, more than 3,500 international observers from the US, the European Union and other Arab countries oversaw the voting. The observers were mostly satisfied with the process and the 24-member team of the US-based International Republican Institute has concluded that these elections were credible and indeed an improvement on previous elections.
However, the most prominent opposition group, Islamic Action Front (IAF) boycotted this election because of King’s failure to introduce any meaningful reforms, thereby robbing the elections of any competitive vestige. Many observers were keen to see if this boycott would adversely affect the voter turnout. A six point drop in voter turnout may or may not have been attributed to the boycott call. Not surprising the IAF declined to accept the official turnout figures, which according its leader Hamzah Mansur at best was 30 percent. The IAF also alleged election frauds and vote buying. Nevertheless, defying the IAF boycott call, seven Islamist candidates contested the parliament election as independent and one of them was declared elected. The participation of the IAF rebels in the elections as independents does indicate deep divisions within its ranks and supporters.
In some ways the election was a repetition of the past as individuals seen as Hashemite loyalists have won most seats. Indeed, only 17 out of the 120 elected representatives belong to any political party. A total of 78 representatives are new faces. With most representatives having been elected with the backing of respective tribal groups, dissent would be minimal. On the gender front, this parliament has 13 women; 12 of whom are elected from the seats reserved for women and Reem Badran, the daughter of former Prime Minister Modar Badran, won an open seat from Amman’s Third District. These elections again failed to address the issue of underrepresentation of Jordanians of Palestinians descent.
While the election results reflected the existing political realities in the Hashemite Kingdom, some of the positives that cannot be ignored: the regularity of elections process in Jordan, participation of women and minorities through government provisions, presence of international observers, media coverage and the election of a number of new faces. In the final analysis, the future of the Jordanian democracy depends on domestic as well as regional developments and King Abdullah-II holds the key for political reforms and participative governance. At the same time, boycott by the Islamic Action Front reflects the internal disenchantment as well as the yearning for meaningful political change. Hence, if and when an accommodation is reached between the Islamists and the Palace, one should not be surprised if the newly elected parliament is dissolved well before it completes its four-year term.
Anjani Kumar Singh is a Doctoral candidate at the School of International Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University: Email.
As part of its editorial policy, the MEI@ND standardizes spelling and date formats to make the text uniformly accessible and stylistically consistent.The views expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views/positions of the MEI@ND. Editor, MEI@ND: P R Kumaraswamy