Elections in Jordan

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Elections in Jordan are for the lower house, known as the House of Representatives, of the bicameral parliament of Jordan, as well as for local elections. They take place within a political system where the King has extensive legislative and executive powers, retaining ultimate political control. The Prime Minister is selected by the King, the PM is then free to choose his own Cabinet. The parliament has quotas: three seats for Circassians and Chechens, nine for Christians and fifteen for women. The electoral system favours rural tribes and those of East Bank origin over urban areas that are primarily inhabited by those of Palestinian descent.

The first general election was held during the Emirate of Transjordan in 1929. Even after Jordan gained independence in 1946, British influence caused elections to be held under block voting. Just three months into an elected government experiment in 1956, the former King Hussein then dismissed that government, declaring martial law and banning political parties. This lasted until general elections were reintroduced in 1989 after unrest over price hikes spread in southern Jordan. The 1989 general election under block voting saw opposition Islamist parties win 22 out of 80 seats in the House of Representatives. The electoral system was then changed in 1992 to a single non-transferable vote system, which became known as “one-man one-vote”, in order to suppress Islamist representation. Opposition parties back then including the Muslim Brotherhood’s Islamic Action Front (IAF) often boycotted elections due to the new law, even though political parties were relegalized and martial law was lifted.

The 2011–12 Jordanian protests that occurred as part of the Arab Spring led to calls for political reform. Some reforms were introduced prior to the 2013 general election, which included the creation of an Independent Electoral Commission. The changes were however deemed insufficient by many opposition parties, and they continued their boycott. Large-scale reforms were put into place for the 2016 general election and the 2017 local elections. Opposition parties including the IAF have ended their boycott of the elections in 2016 after proportional representation was introduced, and together with their allies managed to win 16 seats out of 130, after they were expecting 20-30 seats. Proportional representation is seen as the first step toward establishing parliamentary governments in which parliamentary blocs, instead of the king, choose the prime minister.[1] However, the underdevelopment of political parties in Jordan have slowed down such moves.[1] The latest general and local elections were considered to be fair and transparent by several independent international observers.[2]

Political system

First general election in Jordan's history was held on 2 April 1929.

Compared to other Arab monarchies, Jordan is relatively pluralistic, with a tolerance for political and social opposition.[3] Jordan a member of international treaties obliging it to hold regular elections with appropriate preparation and implementation, and that oblige it to respect the right to vote, the right to be elected and participate in public affairs, freedom of assembly, freedom of association, freedom of movement, and freedom of opinion.[4] After parliament is dissolved, the constitution mandates elections be held within four months.[5] Nonetheless, the monarchy retains ultimate political control, as it is imbued with wide executive and legislative authority, leading the King’s royal court and advisers exercising more power than parliament. While in theory the military and General Intelligence Directorate (GID, a state security body) report to parliament, in practice they report to the monarchy.[3] Important fields of policy, such as foreign relations, economic policy, and internal security are controlled by the King and royal advisors.[6]

The elected lower house of parliament is further constrained by an upper house of equal legislative responsibility whose members are chosen by the King.[3] While the lower house can initiate legislation, the legislation must then be approved by the senate and the King. If the King returns the law unapproved, it must gain approval from two-thirds of both the house and the senate to go into effect.[6] The King appoints a Prime Minister and Cabinet from the lower house, but is not required to consult parliament on his choice or choose based on the largest parties. Cabinet reshuffles within a single parliament can be frequent, and aside from a way to reward loyal MPs they are often used to counter public dissent, as the King can shift blame for issues onto the previous Cabinet while appearing above politics. Similarly, the King can dissolve parliament before the end of its term if he desires early elections, or suspend parliament entirely and rule by decree, which occurred twice in the 21st century, from 2001 to 2003 and 2009 to 2010.[3] Outside of suspension, elections are held within four months of the dissolution of the previous parliament.[5]

Even after legalisation in 1992, political parties have long been weak, an intentional effect of the electoral system.[3] They continue to have low membership, partly due to lingering fear of government discrimination of those holding a party membership. Instead, tribes have become effective political actors, playing roles traditionally associated with political parties, such as holding their own primaries and mobilising voters through their own electoral lists.[4] Elections are therefore often based on patronage rather than politics, with votes falling along tribal or family lines. Politics mirrors the demographic split between those of Palestinian origin and those of East Bank origin. The state is dominated by East Bankers and they form the core of monarchical support, whereas Jordanian Palestinians have little political representation and a systematically discriminated against.[3]

King Abdullah II in a suit
Abdullah II, the King of Jordan, holds extensive legislative and executive powers.

Electoral districts are delimited by the Cabinet upon the recommendation of the ministry of Interior. These constituencies followed administrative boundaries with some minor changes. Each constituency is unreflective of the populations within them. For example, in the 2013 elections the Amman government had 98,936 people per seat, whereas the Tafileh government had just 25,350. Irbid’s seventh district had 48,701 registered voters leading to the winning candidate having 11,624 votes, whereas Ma’an’s second district had just 6,733 registered voters and was won by a candidate who garnered only 1,648 votes.[4] This gerrymandering means that often tribal representatives with local concerns rather than national platforms.[7]

As the election results are based on patronage rather than political alignment, parliaments is often ineffectual.[3] The lack of political parties leads to it being very fractured, impeding reform.[4] Elections are frequently manipulated by the state, from selective support of candidates with funding and media access, to in some cases direct electoral fraud through manipulating votes or manipulating turnout. This is frequently to the detriment of the Muslim Brotherhood’s political arm in Jordan, the Islamic Action Front.[3] Suppression of the Muslim Brotherhood occurs alongside fear of electoral reform giving Palestinians increased political representation,[8] as the IAF is seen as being supported by many Palestinians.[5]

The constraints and restrictions on the power of elected officials imposed by unelected officials has caused public apathy towards parliament.[4] The Jordanian electorate however is largely aware of other electoral options and there is not much public discussion of flaws in the electoral system. While the government has frequently made rhetoric about improving the democratic system, this rhetoric far outstrips any actions it takes.[7]