The Jordanian State Buys Itself Time

by Nicholas Seeley | published February 12, 2013

For background on previous moments of “reform” in Jordan, see Jillian Schwedler, “Jordan’s Risky Business as Usual,” Middle East Report Online, June 30, 2010; Curtis Ryan, “Reforms Retreat Amid Jordan’s Political Storms,” Middle East Report Online, June 10, 2005; and Jillian Schwedler, “Don’t Blink: Jordan’s Democratic Opening and Closing,” Middle East Report Online, July 3, 2002.

For months prior to Jordan’s parliamentary elections, concluded on January 23, both the state apparatus and the opposition had been building up the contests as a moment of truth. The state presented the polls as a critical juncture in the execution of its strategy of gradual political reform; the opposition, riding the momentum of two years of concerted street protests, staged a boycott it hoped would delegitimize the whole endeavor.

It was probably inevitable the media would present the vote as a horse race -- and that race the regime appears to have won handily. The state can point to near record-high turnout as repudiating the opposition’s boycott, and to the reports of election observers who found little, if any fraud as signifying that real political reform is underway. News outlets like the New York Times that had highlighted the regime’s history of broken promises now proclaim its victory. [1] Predictions of imminent collapse, which dominated 2012, have given way to voices hailing the Hashemite Kingdom as one of the “role models for the region” that had “chosen evolution over revolution.” [2]

It certainly seems that the elections have afforded the regime room to breathe. Only two months previously, after all, thousands had taken to the streets all across the kingdom to demand the restoration of fuel subsidies -- and some of the demonstrators’ slogans came close to calling for regime change. In the streets of Amman, angry young men chanted “Freedom is from God, in spite of you, ‘Abdallah” and “Down, down with ‘Abdallah.”

So what happened? Did public opinion shift radically from mid-November to mid-January? Were the protesters always a noisy minority, while the election results reveal the real orientation of the Jordanian people? Or are the discontents of the Jordanian public such that they can be leveraged by both the state and the opposition, under different circumstances? At the moment, there is little solid information about why those who voted did so, or what they hoped their votes would bring. But there are deep currents of suspicion and disaffection about elections running through the local discourse, and the idea that a vote to send someone to Parliament is a vote for regime-managed reform is contestable.

For the moment, the state seems confident that it commands the loyalty of the silent majority. For years, polls have found that most Jordanians are politically conservative, holding positive impressions of the king and royal family and darker views of political parties -- including the Islamists. Jordan has long been regarded as an oasis of stability compared to its neighbors who have faced invasion, foreign occupation and insurrection. Polls and interviews indicate that Jordanians put a high premium on a sense of security, the maintenance of which is of course a mainstay of regime rhetoric.

The opposition, on the other hand, draws its strength primarily from concerns about the economy and complaints about corruption in the cabinet and Parliament. Many in the opposition also note the state’s well-documented history of using “political reform” as a sop to critics. [3] In tough times, the regime pledges to open up the political system, but then offers changes that do little to alter the established power structure.

The state’s election-day triumph seems to reflect these dynamics. Opposition groups may be at their strongest when they concentrate on economics and corruption, as opposed to picking purely political fights, which play to the state’s strengths. But in the longer term, holding an election that is pronounced clean and successful may be of less value to the state than is now apparent. As the year progresses, the public is likely to evaluate the new parliament and government by their ability to address popular concerns.

Counting Heads

In the run-up to the election, analysts and election monitors saw little prospect that it would produce meaningful change. Despite a new election law, passed in response to street protests in 2011 and 2012, Jordan’s voting system remains markedly unrepresentative. The new law is based on the same unusual system employed since 1993, known for returning fragmented parliaments and limiting the power of political parties. Electoral districts are gerrymandered such that votes in regime strongholds count more than other votes. The king appoints the upper house of Parliament, and also retains the powers to dissolve Parliament, decree legislation without parliamentary approval and name the ministers in the cabinet. King ‘Abdallah II has shown little sign of giving up the last prerogative: Despite repeated promises to introduce a European-style system, he says only that the next prime minister will be designated “in consultation with” the new assembly.

Opposition parties cite these systemic problems as the reason for their electoral boycott. They say they are holding out for a system that would produce governments more broadly reflective of the people’s will (though implicit in that demand, at least on the part of the IAF, is the belief that such a system would redound to their benefit). Prior to the January elections, IAF members were explicit in hoping for a record-low turnout that would index popular disaffection. It did not happen.

The participation rate reported by Jordan’s Independent Election Commission was 56.6 percent of the registered voters, higher than that reported in 2010 or 2007, and possibly higher than the turnout in 1989, which produced an opposition-dominated parliament and is widely regarded as the kingdom’s fairest electoral contest. (There is some controversy over the comparisons, with a few claiming that the January turnout was calculated differently than in previous years. [4] This complaint, however, seems to be a misreading of procedural changes in how voters are registered. Both state officials and independent observers say that the comparisons are valid.)

The polls were monitored by delegations from the EU Election Observation Mission, the US-based International Republican Institute and National Democratic Institute, and several groups of local observers fielded by the state-run National Center for Human Rights and the independent Identity Center and Rasad Coalition. All gave generally positive assessments of the voting process itself, finding no reason to suspect systematic fraud. The local groups, which made their own turnout estimates, put the showing at the polls between 50 and 52 percent -- a figure significantly smaller than the official number, but far from evidence of widespread rejection of the contest.

On election day, the opposition cried foul, saying the turnout figure, as usual, had been tampered with. Later they seemed to back off this claim, highlighting instead that only about 70 percent of the potentially eligible population registered to vote. As IAF leader Hamza Mansour pointed out at a press conference, the 1.2 million Jordanians who voted in 2013 represent only about a third of the electorate. While this fact is incidental to comparisons of turnout, which is generally measured in terms of registered voters, it does weaken the notion that the elections demonstrated a groundswell of support for the state’s reform program.

It is dangerous to make too much of turnout numbers, as there are many factors in play. For example, since 2007, the number of Jordanians on the voter rolls has declined slightly, when one would expect, with a growing population, that it would have risen. Perhaps this discrepancy speaks to the effects of the IAF boycotts in 2010 and 2013. On the other hand, even taking such oddities into account, it is safe to say that the opposition’s best efforts at boycotting have not been enough to cripple the election system.

The IAF has not specified why it shifted the thrust of its critique. Perhaps the reports by election monitors played a role; perhaps the party simply decided it was a losing proposition to battle a second time with the regime over elections dubbed successful by the agencies officially charged with the task.

More Than One Day

High turnout and good reviews of election day are the foundations of the state’s claim to have a new mandate. But election monitors in Jordan have made the same point time and time again: An election is much more than the casting of ballots, and a successful poll does not equate to the advent of democracy.

Though the monitors’ reports were broadly upbeat, they also contained significant criticisms that have drawn little attention. Both local and international observers were sanguine about the Independent Election Commission, which was founded by the state along with the new elections law in the reforms of 2011-2012. With very little lead time, the observers noted, the Commission held a voter registration drive, put in place voter identification and voting procedures that prevented serious fraud, and staffed polling places with competent officials who understood the new rules and were able, in general, to carry out a clean poll and a credible vote count.

But the monitors were also unanimous in their assessment that the system underpinning the vote falls considerably short of ideal. Their criticism centers on the distorted representation inherent in the election law and the political culture that gerrymandering promotes. Jordan’s voting system boosts the fortunes of candidates whose support base lies in large tribes or localities, while handicapping political parties and unaffiliated candidates who have national agendas. In Jordan’s last five parliamentary elections, most of the seats have gone to such independent or “tribal” candidates. Once elected, the MPs have little ability to shape national policy in any event, since the king appoints all other branches of government.

The incentives created are perverse. Voters may feel pushed to back the candidate who returns home bearing spoils from the treasury, rather than the one who represents their vision for the nation. Indeed, deputies in past assemblies have been lambasted for passing out rewards to supporters while ignoring national issues -- one voter, on election day, derided previous parliaments as “service departments.” Polls have found that large portions of the public see parliamentarians as highly corrupt. It is easy to see how this system becomes self-reinforcing. Voters feel that their vote means little on the national stage, while candidates for office seek to become local patrons while feathering their own nests. The result can be vote buying and coercive campaigning.

In the long run, election monitors and local officials hope, measures such as ensuring the secrecy of the ballot could help to change this culture. But in the 2013 election, at least, problems remained.

One thing noted by all the election observers was the campaigning going on around and, in some instances, inside polling stations, in violation of the law. In its preliminary report, the National Democratic Institute wrote, “Observers also witnessed cases where [election] officials ceded their authority in polling stations to candidates, agents and other prominent members of the community; failed to prevent or react to violations; and, in isolated cases, even willingly compromised the secrecy of the vote.” NDI officials pointed out that such cases were far from the norm, but in some areas, the elections evinced clear signs of being dominated by candidates who had rallied tribal supporters and perhaps paid agents in aggressive attempts to corral the vote.

Hayy Tufayla is a low-income area in central Amman, heavily populated by migrants from the southern town of Tafila. It is also the home ground of Yahya Sa‘ud, a prominent tribal politician who was recently the subject of a criminal investigation related to his campaign tactics. Sa‘ud delivered a speech with thousands of voter ID cards arrayed on a table in front of him. Holding the voter ID card of another person is a crime, and is often associated with vote buying: Candidates will buy a voter’s card before the polls, and then give it back outside the polling place on election day, usually offering a second payment once the voter shows he has cast his ballot.

At one Hayy Tufayla polling station, nearly every possible violation of electoral procedure occurred in the course of a few hours. The street outside was festooned with campaign posters and banners, and crowded with men arriving in buses and cars plastered with pictures of Sa‘ud. Men handed out flyers, and nationalistic songs blared from loudspeakers.

Inside the center, men roamed the halls. Many of them appeared not to be voting, but simply to be waiting around. They conferred in whispers and peeled off to talk to arriving voters. A number of voters were seen checking off their ballots and displaying the results to Sa‘ud’s agents before putting them in the box -- another practice commonly associated with vote buying. In one room, the election commission official stood behind the screen with the voters, quietly advising them as they marked their ballots. At another point, the candidate himself appeared with his entourage, several of whom were leafing through stacks of voter cards they kept in their coat pockets. Several voters avoided inking their fingers after casting their ballots, heading back to join the men hanging out in the halls.

Such scenes were the exception rather than the rule. Campaigning outside polling places was widespread, but at three other polling stations in Amman, the conduct of the vote appeared entirely orderly; voter identification procedures were followed carefully, fingers were inked and the only people inside the polling centers seemed to be election officials, police, registered observers and voters arriving or departing. Still, the continuation of dubious activity at Hayy Tufayla and elsewhere again casts doubt on the idea that the strong turnout was an endorsement of state policies. Many observers note that the “tribal” bias of the election system boosts turnout, since the groups that benefit directly from the parliamentary spoils system show up to keep the spoils coming. Not surprisingly, assessments of the election were more positive in Hayy Tufayla, home to migrants from one such “tribal” area, than in Wihdat, home to the disenfranchised urban poor.

A Cautious Optimism

Turnout in Jordanian elections is usually highest in the over-represented rural, “tribal” areas, home to the constituencies that benefit most from the spoils system. January’s poll was no exception, but even Amman and its sister city, Zarqa, had higher levels of turnout than many predicted, suggesting something more than just tribal politics at work.

There are thus important questions to be asked about how most Jordanians perceive the elections. Both the NDI and the Center for Strategic Studies at Jordan University (CSS) are conducting extensive polls about attitudes toward the election, attempting to develop a clearer picture of why people voted and how they chose who to vote for -- information that may give a much better indication of what these elections meant than raw turnout numbers.

Certainly, the state’s narrative of successful reform resonates in some quarters; in others, rumors of misconduct and fraud continue to swirl. Even officials of the Independent Election Commission, so praised by observers and voters alike for their role in facilitating Jordan’s first “clean” elections, said they faced ambient mistrust. The forthcoming polls may supply clues as to how broadly these narratives penetrate.

But there were few signs of wild enthusiasm among the steady stream of voters passing in and out of polling stations in Amman. Most offered what could at best be described as cautious optimism.

Many seemed eager for some kind of change -- an attitude that lines up with existing survey data. According to a July 2012 poll by the International Republican Institute, more Jordanians think the country is going in the wrong direction than the right one and many feel deep discontent with the weak economy and perceived government corruption. The same poll found Jordanians taking a dim view of politicians in general, and parliamentarians in particular, who despite being elected appear less popular than royally appointed officials. And in a September 2012 CSS survey, a big portion of the public said the state's reforms had been insufficient -- though large majorities still said it was better to change the system through political action than through street protest. [5]

On election day, too, many voters said the change they desire must come from the new parliament. “Things will not change overnight,” said Dirar al-Sa‘ud in Hayy Tufayla. “We have to give a chance to the new parliament.... What we are going through is far better than protesting in the street.”

Some voters said the new deputies needed to stand up to the regime to effect change, while others said the Parliament must implement the king’s reform plan. Quite a few voters, indeed, pinned their hopes primarily on the king himself. “The king is taking a lot of interest in [this election],” said Muhammad ‘Awda at a polling station in Wihdat, a low-income area inhabited chiefly by Jordanians of Palestinian origin. “He’s following it, and the United States of America sent observers. That’s why, maybe, it will be a good one.” But ‘Awda said he had not voted yet: He had found no candidate he could support, because most of them were buying votes.

The election-day optimism, however guarded, is not to be underestimated, but neither is the degree to which that sentiment is contingent on what comes next.

Open Questions

Lawmakers have gained an opportunity to soften the harsh public perceptions of their institution -- if they want to do so and if other elements of the state apparatus will allow it.

There are indications that the new parliament is more representative -- or at least more diverse -- than the old one. Candidates from al-Wasat al-Islami, a centrist Islamist party, came away with 16 seats, a substantial increase in their representation. Leftists also picked up around a dozen seats (depending on who is counting). Whether either of these groups will be credible to the protesters in the streets is an open question: In the past, many leftist and Islamist MPs have been characterized as “safe,” regime-aligned candidates rather than a genuine opposition.

Palestinian Jordanians likewise seem to have gained ground, now holding roughly 35 seats as opposed to 20 or so in the last parliament. Women’s representation also increased slightly, with women taking two national list seats and two district seats, in addition to 15 seats from the 10 percent quota they are allotted under the election law.

But with cross-cutting allegiances to social groups, local constituencies and political ideologies, it is not clear whether any of these groups will be able to form a lasting coalition -- particularly as there are no rules yet in place for the formation of parliamentary blocs and Parliament would have to agree upon any change in its internal regulations.

And the assembly contains a sizable contingent of returning MPs, many of them tribal candidates who have shown a willingness to continue doling out benefits to favorite sons and, in general, toe the regime line. They will likely obstruct, as well, any attempt at reversing the present gerrymandering, which shores up their own influence. [6] The February 10 election of Saad Hayil Surour to lead the lower house of Parliament may speak to the clout this old guard can wield in the legislature. Surour served multiple terms as deputy prime minister and interior minister in the hardline governments of Ma‘rouf al-Bakhit.

If the new government looks the same as previous ones, it is likely to undercut the state’s claim to be carrying out gradual reform, and encourage the IAF and other opposition parties, who are watching carefully, expecting that a return to the status quo will reignite popular anger. If Parliament is unable to make serious progress toward improving the economy, an item which usually tops the list of the public’s grievances, that will also have consequences. The first challenge the new deputies will face, the yearly budget, will be doubly critical, establishing both the MPs’ economic credentials and their ability to have a serious debate.

In the longer term, there will be questions of which battles to fight. Oppositionists, in particular, may lose credit with the street if they focus exclusively on political reforms, without also establishing their ability to deal with the economy. But there is still some optimism that the new lower house will be able to do both.

Mustafa Hamarna, a new MP from Madaba and a long-time critic of state policies, characterizes Surour as “a compromiser” willing to work with a variety of parliamentary forces. He remains optimistic about the chances that diverse voices will be heard in the coming debates. “We are trying, in our bloc, to produce a document that can show exactly where we stand on public spending and taxes. And I am hopeful that we can -- we don’t have very much time, but we can pull something credible off. I think this will have an impact on Parliament and on legislation, if it’s done right.” In the future, he says, there will be other contentious fights, over rewriting the election law as well as Jordan’s political parties law, which puts numerous restrictions on forming and funding parties, and the much criticized citizenship law that prevents Jordanian women from passing on their nationality to their children. “These are thorny issues, all of them, but we are going to get involved.”

What the state has won is time, which it may use to carry out a reform program, to appease its core constituents or to do a bit of both. In the past, Jordan’s electoral exercises have generally been preludes to consolidations of regime power. But history is not destiny. The state may travel down the path of reform it has laid out, toward parliamentary government and constitutional monarchy, even at the cost of upsetting its traditional clients. Or it may attempt to delay reform again, using the same bait-and-switch it has employed for decades. The presence of a strong tribal element in the street protest movement cuts both ways: It may motivate the regime to shore up its rural base, or create an opening for those demanding more accountability from the government. [7] And outside events will continue to exert pressure. The unfolding disaster in neighboring Syria will likely keep security high on the local agenda; on the other hand, the state faces another moment of potential crisis, as sometime early in 2013, probably April, conditions of Jordan's IMF loan agreements will require the state to engage in another round of subsidy removal like the one that triggered the November 2012 unrest.

Particularly if the threat of spillover from the conflict in Syria remains uppermost in Jordanians’ minds, the state may be able to hold off on substantial political reform indefinitely, should it choose to do so. But at some point it may also find that its time-honored tactics no longer work, and that the expectations invested in the new parliament join the already long list of popular resentments.

“I hope [things will change],” said Ahmad Kamal, a young voter in Shumaysani, a prosperous district in the capital. “They have to, after what happened, after the latest protests. They have to.... So, this time, we are giving them our trust again. Hopefully, things can change. If not, this right [to vote] will be useless, and we will think a million times before using it again.”

Endnotes

[1] New York Times, January 30, 2013.
[2] Fareed Zakaria, “Arab Spring’s Hits and Misses,” Washington Post, January 30, 2013.
[3] On the state’s reform rhetoric, see Curtis Ryan, “Political Opposition and Reform Coalitions in Jordan,” British Journal of Middle East Studies 38/3 (2011).
[4] Ziad Abu-Rish, “Romancing the Throne: The New York Times and the Endorsement of Authoritarianism in Jordan,” Jadaliyya, February 3, 2013.
[5] Christian Science Monitor, November 27, 2012.
[6] Laurie Brand and Fayez Hammad, “Identity and the Jordanian Elections,” Foreign Policy, January 17, 2013.
[7] Christian Science Monitor, December 18, 2012.

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