Jordanians doubtful of change through ‘milestone’ elections
AMMAN // Jordan is dotted with fancy campaign tents, vibrant posters and Photoshopped images of candidates on nearly every street corner.
Empty slogans promising to pull the country out of its economic doldrums, deepen democracy and even liberate Palestine are plastered on walls and hang from electricity poles.
The government is promoting Tuesday’s parliamentary elections as a milestone intended to reinvigorate parliament. They will be held under a new law endorsed in March that cancelled the single vote system and replaced it with proportional representation to encourage the creation of political blocs and coalitions.
But critics say the law does not go far enough to encourage political parties and that the elections are likely to be won by candidates similar to those in the past: pro-monarchy candidates, those tied to the country’s traditional tribal network and influential businessmen.
The election mood has already been soured by voter apathy, resentment over economic hardships and government warnings against vote-buying, as well as citizens’ frustration with the performance of the previous parliament.
“Until now I haven’t made up my mind if I am going to vote or not,” said Mohammad Attiyat, 55, sitting at one of the election tents in Amman where candidates meet the public. “These elections will be worse than before and people are not interested. They are concerned more about their salaries that are not enough, while poverty and unemployment are increasing everywhere.”
Others, however, are more optimistic.
In Abdoun, another part of the capital, Marwan Qawas, 60, said he would cast his ballot for his relative, a Christian running on a national list that includes Islamists. Candidates can run on lists only, rather than individually. “We have to be optimistic that there will be positive change in the next parliament’s performance, particularly after the reputation of the previous parliament was tainted,” he said.
“We have some new faces running as well as a list that is focusing on promoting citizenship away from religious slogans. But we know that change will be limited because people are reluctant to vote.”
Concerned about low voter turnout, the government has repeatedly urged Jordanians to cast their ballots to elect a representative parliament.
“Participating in the elections is a national duty … that will be a core in the country’s path towards reforms,” said the political and parliamentary affairs minister Musa Maaytah, quoted by the official news agency Petra. “Boycotting elections does not serve national and political interests at a time Jordan is moving steadily towards reinforcing reforms.”
In all, 1,252 candidates are running on 226 lists for 130 seats, reduced from 150 under the new electoral law. It also divides the kingdom into 23 electoral districts, with five for Amman, four for Irbid, two for Zarqa, and one each for the remaining nine governorates and three badia constituencies.
The law also maintains the quota of 15 parliamentary seats for women.
The electoral reforms have encouraged the Islamic Action Front (IAF), the Muslim Brotherhood’s affiliated party, to contest the elections as part of a national coalition after boycotting polls in 2010 and 2013.
The participation of the most powerful opposition group is seen as a victory for the government and strengthens the legitimacy of the electoral process.
Yet the Brotherhood is fragmented as a result of internal rifts and a series of crackdowns by the authorities. The original branch is now illegal and its headquarters were shut down in April.
The IAF is expected to win about 15 seats.
Still, critics say despite the changes in the election process, they have little faith this will create tangible change in a country where the political system is mostly dominated by the royal court and regional chaos has dampened the government’s appetite for reforms.
“There is voter apathy among the political elite and ordinary Jordanians mainly because they do not trust that elections and the electoral reforms are genuine and credible,” said Amer Sabaileh, a political analyst and director of Middle East Media and Political Studies Institute, a think tank with an office in Amman and headquarters in Washington.
“The rules of the game did not change much and therefore there will be no real change. The outcome of elections will produce a similar parliament that lacks political flavour,” he said. “There is no political culture in the country. Parliament will be dominated by tribesmen, businessmen and contractors.”
The elections take place as Jordan is struggling to sidestep the violence that has engulfed the region. Three terrorist attacks on security targets in the past year have raised concerns in a country that takes pride in its security and stability.
Jordan’s ailing economy, propped up by foreign donations and dependent on remittances from citizens in Arab Gulf countries, has suffered in part due to the conflicts in Syria and Iraq that have disrupted trade routes, shaken investor confidence and taken a toll on the tourism sector.
Jordan has also witnessed a setback in reforms adopted after the Arab Spring. In May this year, the previous parliament approved amendments to the constitution which further consolidated the king’s powers. Jordan has also seen limits on the freedom of expression, with gag orders, prosecution of activists and detentions of journalists, in some cases under a sweeping counter-terrorism law adopted in 2014.
At the same time, public confidence in parliament has plummeted this year, with Jordanians accusing the legislature of being weak, ineffective and doing hardly anything that deserved praise.
A survey published in June by the International Republican Institute showed that 72 per cent of Jordanians believed the last parliament moved the country in a worse or much worse direction, compared with 46 per cent in 2015.
The polls also showed that 87 per cent of Jordanians thought parliament had not accomplished anything for which it should be commended.
Fifty-seven per cent said they were unlikely to cast their vote in this week’s election, compared with 44 per cent last year.
Despite the mood, candidates are pressing ahead with their campaigns. At one election rally this month, candidate Tayseer Assaf told the crowds: “We should review the financial and economic policies and work on attracting foreign investment to provide job opportunities for the youth based on a comprehensive vision.”
His speech was in keeping with the tone of other campaign rallies. The candidates speak in vague general terms and elastic slogans that cannot be translated into clear and well-defined agendas, according to Integrity Coalition for Elections Observation, a coalition of civil society organisations monitoring the polls.
As far as the Islamist opposition is concerned, it has not raised its old slogan that Islam is the solution.
“Because we are running with other allies, we will work on mutual programmes,” said Murad Adayleh, the IAF spokesman. “Most important is that the government does not meddle in the elections.”
Updated: September 17, 2016 04:00 AM