Jordan’s Elections: Voting in a Weak Parliament

Jordanian government spokesman Mohammad Momani described the country’s September 20 parliamentary election as a source of “pride” and asserted that the country has now “inaugurated a new era.” While the parliamentary space for opposition voices slightly increased, Jordan’s 2016 elections largely preserved the country’s status quo and maintained the tribal-Palestinian divide.

Government supporters correctly point out that Jordan’s elections themselves send an important message. With widespread violence in neighboring Iraq, Syria, and Egypt, Amman prides itself on resolving differences peacefully at the ballot box. (But, the assassination of Jordanian writer Nahed Hattar on Sunday after sharing a cartoon on Facebook complicates this message).

Still, the Independent Election Commission conducted the race professionally. As opposed to the 2007 race when Jordan’s intelligence chief later admitted to falsifying the results, European Union observers praised this year’s race as “well-organized, peaceful, and inclusive.” After ending a nearly decade-long boycott, the electoral list of the Muslim Brotherhood-affiliated party, the Islamic Action Front (I.A.F.), won 15 seats in last week’s vote.

From the opposite side of the political spectrum, a new liberal list, Ma’an, which advocates for the separation of religion and state—highly controversial in conservative Jordan—entered the parliament. This list will promote a more boisterous debate regarding government policies, especially on the role of Islam, noted Naseem Tarawneh, author of the popular Jordanian political blog Black Iris. Furthermore, the 20 women that will be entering the lower house is the highest number in Jordan’s history, matching the total of 20 women currently serving in the U.S. Senate.

Yet, with all of these constructive developments, the elections also demonstrated that the status quo will likely remain. Yes, the I.A.F. entered parliament, but with 11.5 percent of the lower house’s seats, they will remain a small minority unable to pass their own policies. Ma’an, a popular group especially among liberals in western Amman, earned only two seats. A vast majority of MPs will be pro-regime and tribal-affiliated, ensuring the kingdom preserves its relative calm from the legislative wing.

King Abdullah appointed Prime Minster Hani Al-Mulki before the elections. After last week’s race Mulki was again chosen by the Hashemite monarch to form the next government. Despite officials repeatedly touting the importance of last week’s elections, the king, not the public, is the one selecting the prime minister—another sign of Jordan maintaining its existing political environment.

Another worrying development was that just 37 percent of eligible voters cast a ballot. Mistrust in parliament remains high with a recent poll showing that 87 percent of Jordanians could not point to a single positive achievement during the 2013-2016 parliamentary term. The legislature is considered a weak body in the face of the more overbearing Royal Court and General Intelligence Directorate.

The Jordanian government’s gerrymandering, which ensures unequal representation, also contributes to voter apathy. Many of the governorates with the highest concentration of tribal, pro-regime residents receive approximately twice the number of representatives compared to their actual population. For example, the tribal governorate of Karak earned 11 seats (8.5 percent of the legislature), despite only amounting to 4 percent of the population. As East Bankers have overwhelmingly served in the country’s security forces and have an interest in supporting the monarchy, Amman ensures that despite their minority population, tribal groups maintain outsized influence.

In contrast, the country’s major cities, which contain the largest populations of Jordanians of Palestinian descent as well as Muslim Brotherhood supporters, were significantly underrepresented. In direct opposition to the tribal areas, votes in urban centers were reduced almost half their weight relative to their actual population count. Amman’s second district includes 9.7 percent of the population, but merited only 5.2 percent of the seats. The New York Times estimates that 60 percent of Jordanians are of Palestinian descent. Critics point to the many years of political disenfranchisement as proof of the government’s intentions to maintain firmer control.

Due to the disproportionate legislative representation, voter participation varied widely depending on the country’s geography. In Amman, which contains a high concentration of Jordanians of Palestinian lineage, a mere 23 percent of citizens voted. On the other hand, turnout was dramatically higher in the rural East Bank governorates, reaching 60-84 percent in most areas—about three times the results in the capital. Many Jordanians of Palestinian origin have disengaged from the political process, while East Bankers are voting en masse given the decades-long tribal patronage system, explained Oraib Rantawi, director of the Amman-based Quds Center for Political Studies.

Despite being the most organized opposition movement, the government’s gerrymandering also harms the Muslim Brotherhood. The government launched an aggressive campaign against the Islamist movement, shutting down its offices across the country in April. King Abdullah referred to the Brotherhood as a “masonic cult… run by wolves in sheep’s clothing.” According to Middle East Eye, while the Brotherhood won only 11.5 percent of the lower house’s seats, the group in fact received nearly 25 percent of the popular vote. A closer examination of the vote tally reveals that the Brotherhood performed especially well in Amman and Zarqa, but struggled in rural towns.

Immediately before the 2013-2016 parliamentary term concluded, the lower house hastily approved constitutional amendments that granted the already powerful King Abdullah significantly more control over the country’s security forces (by a vote of 123 out of 142 present MPs). In May, then lawmaker Mustafa Hamarneh said the amendments “deformed the constitution (and) damaged the three branches of government.”

In the 2016 race, the government continued its gerrymandering, ensuring an artificially high representation of tribal loyalists while reducing the presence of the Muslim Brotherhood opposition. Thus, Jordan is likely to see more of the same with a weak parliament, and an ever-powerful monarchy.