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IDSA COMMENT

Significance of the Jordanian Parliamentary Election

September 28, 2016

Who won the just concluded parliamentary election in Jordan? The answer depends on how one frames ‘victory'? The outcome of the 18th parliamentary election held on September 20 reflects the complexity of the Jordanian society and its multiple identities, namely, the tribal groups which form the backbone of the Hashemite power, a sizeable Palestinian population, presence of powerful Islamist forces, various religious and ethnic minorities, and a larger refugee population. It is this diversity which makes electoral process a complex but dynamic affair.

The most significant outcome of this election has been the participation of the Islamic Action Front (IAF), the political wing of the officially-banned Muslim Brotherhood. Due to disagreements over electoral laws and one-person-one-vote system that favoured the tribes and pro-monarchy independents, the IAF had refused to take part in previous elections held in 2010 and 2013. As a well-organised party with grassroots support, its participation is considered essential for the legitimacy of the electoral process and seen in that context, the just concluded elections can be declared as a success.

At the same time, the performance of the IAF-led National Alliance for Reform was less than spectacular. As against the pre-election estimate of 25 seats, the block could win only 15 seats in the 130-member house, including ten secured by the IAF. Eight political parties won 20 seats; they are Zamzam (five), National Current (four), Islamic Centrist Part (five) and Justice and Reform Party (two). The Ba’ath, Communists, National Union and Al Awn lists have won one seat each. The rest of close to 100 seats were won either by local lists or were reserved for women and minorities. Under such circumstances, government formation would be a herculean task and will have to include many one-seat parties, blocs, and individuals.

The Hashemites have been accommodative of the tribal population through gerrymandering and this time the allocation of electoral districts took care of this issue. The 130 seats were divided among the 23 electoral districts in the 12 Governorates, with the tribal areas getting more than adequate representation.

Under popular pressures, especially from the IAF, the erstwhile one-person-one-vote system which favoured the tribal population was abandoned in favour of proportional representation. At the same time, Jordan is still struggling to determine the optimum size of the parliament whose strength once stood at 80, and was raised to 150, and now stands at 130.

Women are the significant gainers of this election. While 15 seats are reserved for them, they had won 20 seats, that is, five seats outside their quota. Out of the 1,252 candidates who took part in the elections, as many as 252 were women, the highest number ever in Jordan’s electoral history.

This was the second election since the outbreak of the Arab Spring protests in the Middle East in late 2010 and has seen some new initiatives. Besides the proportional representation, the elections were conducted by the Independent Election Commission. For quiet sometime King Abdullah had been indicating that the future Jordanian Government would be headed by an ‘elected’ and not a nominated prime minister. In many ways, this election is a test of his commitment to electoral reforms.

Since the outbreak of the Jasmine Revolution in Tunisia, Islamists parties have won various elections in the Arab world. Jordan could have gone the same way but for its electoral system of gerrymandering and affirmative action in favour of women and minorities. Partly to consolidate the position of the palace, the electoral system has always been tilted in favour of the minority population. Out of the 130 seats, nine seats are reserved for Christians, three for Circassians and Chechens, nine seats for Bedouins and 15 seats for women. To further women empowerment, three of the 15 seats reserved for women are earmarked for Bedouins. The affirmative action in favour of the minorities does not reflect their demographic conditions; for example, Christians account for about three per cent of the population but are given nine out of 130 seats.

Though the IAF is the largest bloc in the new parliament, its ability to play a key role in the government formation depends upon the level of support it receives from various like-minded blocs and individuals. Partly with this in mind, the IAF had fielded Christians and women on its list and one from each group had won their seats.

International monitors who observed the elections declared it to be free and fair and it passed off without violence. At the same time, the voter apathy was palpable. Partly to encourage young voters, the voting age was reduced from 18 to 17 and out of the 4.1 million eligible voters only 1.5 million or 37 per cent cast their ballot. The apathy appears to be widespread and more pronounced among the youth. Observers identify continuing economic crisis and growing unemployment as principle reasons. At the same time, the victory of a number of local lists indicates that the Jordanians remain more preoccupied with issues of local governance than larger issues facing the country such as the threat from the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), growing influx of Syrian refugees, and sustaining peace with Israel.

Manjari Singh is a doctoral candidate and Ryoichi Sasakawa Young Leaders Fellowship Fund (SYLFF) Fellow at the Centre for West Asian Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi.

Views expressed are of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the IDSA or of the Government of India.

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