Middle East Research and Information Project: Critical Coverage of the Middle East Since 1971

Months before Jordan’s November 10, 2020 parliamentary election was announced, parties and candidates began to contact Abu Qais—a veteran political organizer in Amman’s third district.

Political posters in Amman, Jordan in the run up to the November 2020 parliamentary election. Photo by the author.

These electoral hopefuls knew that Abu Qais’s experience would prove invaluable as they prepared for what promised to be a unique election. While almost every election since the re-introduction of electoral life in 1989 has been conducted under a new election law, the 2020 election will be contested under a previously used law. Thus, instead of the necessity of once again familiarizing themselves with a new process, the parties and candidates faced a different challenge: How could they most effectively learn from the preceding election in 2016 and avoid its pitfalls? As candidates clamored to bring together strong election lists, multi-party coalitions and cross-district lists (often referred to as currents or tayyarat), Abu Qais’s main concern was to pick the best offer.

By the time summer arrived, however, he still did not have a contract. Abu Qais remained in high demand. His many mobile phones continued to ring, but none of the callers could give him a concrete offer. Instead, the candidates remained stuck in a musical chairs process of electoral maneuvering. Abu Qais worked to solidify the cooperation of candidates amid this dangerous game, but to little avail. As Jordan’s unusually hot summer proceeded, the possibility of working with a strong list or current began to evaporate. Candidates failed to agree on mechanisms for cooperation, and their nascent lists, coalitions and currents consequently began to fall apart. Less than two months before the election, Abu Qais could no longer hold out in the hope of helming a large political vehicle. He accepted an offer to manage the campaign of a single candidate.

The declining opportunities for Abu Qais are a reflection of the changing tides of the elections as a whole. In early interviews, candidates predicted that the election would yield—for better or for worse—a transformed parliamentary landscape. But these lofty predictions have since given way to sober predictions of a business-as-usual election. Despite early projections that the bourgeoning currents would dominate the election, they have failed to materialize as strong contenders, likely because these largely centrist, loyalist currents have not received the expected state backing that would be necessary to mobilize a national movement in Jordan’s political environment. Meanwhile, any efforts to form strong lists and coalitions have faced significant pressures, compounding their existing inability to work together. As a result, instead of a transformed parliamentary landscape, the house will likely be dominated once again by independents who will forget the name of their list as soon as the ballots are counted.

 

Learning from the 2016 Election

 

On July 29, 2020 King Abdullah II of Jordan instructed the country’s Independent Election Commission (IEC) to prepare for parliamentary elections. Within hours of the king’s instructions, the IEC announced that the election would take place on November 10. Even though the election had already been delayed, its announcement came as a shock for some because they expected revisions to the extant election law ahead of the polls. Most parties and candidates favored reforming the 2016 Election Law, but key figures in the government, including the IEC’s Chairman Khaled Kalaldeh, insisted that it was better to maintain consistency—for once.[1] This consistency, they argued, would allow candidates to participate in a familiar process and maybe learn from the previous election in 2016.

Most parties and candidates favored reforming the 2016 Election Law, but key figures in the government, including the IEC’s Chairman Khaled Kalaldeh, insisted that it was better to maintain consistency—for once.

While holding out hope for reform, parties and candidates also took the learning opportunity seriously, focusing in particular on issues that emerged in the previous election related to the formation of candidate lists. The current elections law outlines a system of open-list voting, wherein each candidate must join a list.[2] When filling in their ballots, voters first select a list and then the candidates within the list to represent the electoral district. This system encountered a number of issues in 2016. Believing it unlikely that any list would win more than one or two seats in a district, candidates were afraid to join lists that already had strong candidates. As a result, many candidates had to include filler (hashweh) in their lists, often paying sure-to-lose candidates to help boost them into a seat in the parliament. Candidates also struggled to work together, typically campaigning as individuals—and even against their own list members. Only a few lists actually managed to work together, including the Islah lists, which were primarily made up of candidates from the well-organized Islamic Action Front (IAF) and some non-Muslim Brotherhood independent candidates. The reformist Ma’an List also managed to campaign as a cohesive list in Amman’s third electoral district: the most political of Jordan’s districts. The fruits of this cooperation were manifest in the election results, with Islah receiving 17 seats across its lists and Ma’an receiving two seats in the third district.

Eager to avoid the mistakes of 2016, potential candidates for the 2020 election have tried to build the strongest possible lists with the intention of campaigning together rather than as individuals. As a result, a key task for Abu Qais was to bring together political dream teams of strong candidates who could meet the different ethno-religious and gender requirements of their respective districts. More than just putting together lists that would be effective at the polls, however, the candidates wanted to create pre-election blocs that could subsequently work together in the parliament. With this in mind, many sought to build cross-district cooperation to benefit them both on the campaign trail and “under the dome.” Beyond forming strong lists, therefore, a key focus was bringing together wide coalitions.

 

The Changing Currents of Parliamentary Elections

 

Early in the preparation for this election, multi-district linked lists (typically referred to as currents) emerged as the election vehicle of choice for non-ideological, well-financed candidates. These cross-district lists were used to a limited extent in the 2016 election (even Islah functioned in this manner), but much more prominent and better financed currents appeared to be coming together ahead of the 2020 polls. The most notable of these was led by the speaker of parliament, Atef Tarawneh. At the end of 2019, Tarawneh began to assemble a current that would run a list in each of Jordan’s 23 districts—a feat that had not been attempted by any party.[3] Other centrists followed suit. For instance, several high-profile political figures, including Ahmed Safadi, Nadia Rawabdeh, Mazen al Qadi and Sakher Dudin, brought together the National Pact, which intended to not only run in every district, but also field multiple lists in some districts.[4] The Pact even attempted to further scale up by negotiating a potential coalition with the also large Central Political Parties current.[5]

The large currents not only brought together strong candidates across the country, they also boasted of a unique ability to amass substantial coffers that would be centrally managed to ensure well-financed national campaigns. Members of the currents noted that they would make significant personal contributions to finance the currents and, equally importantly, that the currents would attract private sector donations. Of course, parties and lists have previously received private sector funding, but the currents indicated that they would be able to draw on unprecedented contributions from large private sector entities across the country, including banks and resource extraction companies.[6]

The early confidence of the currents has, however, proven unjustified. In the midst of Tarawneh’s gambit to bring together a current, legal troubles emerged related to his family’s companies and it quickly became unlikely that Tarawneh would be able to pursue his electoral project.[7] The National Pact has not fared much better. Unable to achieve cross-district cohesion, the members now acknowledge that the current will not take shape for this election (although it might be used in subsequent elections). Members of the Pact attribute this development to the onset of the coronavirus pandemic, but it is likely also related to the Pact’s relationship to the state.

It appears that any encouragement that might have previously existed for the centrist currents has now receded.
It appears that any encouragement that might have previously existed for the centrist currents has now receded. A number of individual centrist candidates will continue to be favored (including some key members of the currents), but there is an evident lack of willingness to allow even these loyalist candidates to form national political movements. At this point, no nation-wide centrist current will be competing in the election, and it is consequently unlikely that the political center in the parliament will grow any more cohesive.

 

Swimming Against the Currents

 

The currents preoccupied Abu Qais for several months; not only was he asked to support the campaign of one current, but the other parties and candidates also identified the nascent centrist currents as a key threat—one that required a concerted electoral strategy to effectively confront. Many of Abu Qais’s potential clients feared that the currents were being provided with both the financial resources and the requisite political space to assemble national movements (even though this has not transpired). Unsure of how to address this new threat, some of the non-centrists, which include left-wing parties, reformist independents and the Islamic parties, signaled their hypothetical willingness to join a large current, but they also raised a number of concerns about this approach. For instance, Abla Abu Olbeh, the secretary general of the leftist Jordanian Democratic People’s Party (HASHD), noted that joining a current would only make sense if the open-list system was replaced with closed lists (in which voters only pick the list rather than the candidates therein), thereby preventing a small party from being marginalized within a current’s lists.[8]

Unenthusiastic about joining a centrist current and discouraged by the ideological compromise that would be necessary to form their own currents, the non-centrists searched for other means of fostering strong multi-district cooperation ahead of the election. These efforts primarily involved trying to assemble strong political parties, forming cross-party coalitions and trying to force together strong individual lists. In contrast to the state support that the centrist currents seemed to be afforded (at least initially), the non-centrists felt from the very beginning that they were being blocked every time they tried to broaden their electoral approach.

These obstacles were clear in the early attempt of several influential reformists to forge together the Civil Alliance Party, which at one point could have seen the inclusion of the extant Social Democratic Party and Stronger Jordan Party. Efforts to consolidate this leftist front ahead of the election were, however, impeded. The Political Parties Committee within the Ministry of Political and Parliamentary Affairs rejected the Alliance’s application to merge. This decision has been taken to the courts (and appealed) but, in the meantime, the Alliance will not run in the coming election—although some of its members will run as independents.[9]

While the Civil Alliance would have brought together a cadre of strong, hitherto-divided reformist voices and thus constituted a fairly contentious development, more innocuous attempts to bring together the left were also discouraged.
While the Civil Alliance would have brought together a cadre of strong, hitherto-divided reformist voices and thus constituted a fairly contentious development, more innocuous attempts to bring together the left were also discouraged. Building upon a long-standing coalition, for example, six of the leftist and Arab nationalist parties decided to run (for the first time) on joint lists in select districts.[10] Coalition members acknowledged that they did not expect to secure more than a seat or two, if any. The parties are primarily participating in the coalition to help one another receive sufficient votes to secure funding under the revised political parties financing bylaw or to disseminate their platforms during the campaigning period.[11] And yet, despite these meager prospects, some of the coalition’s proposed candidates were discouraged from running with the coalition. For example, a number of potential candidates who have government jobs (from which they must legally resign to become candidates) were told that they will be prevented from returning to their positions if they run with the coalition.[12] As a result, several of the candidates dropped out of the coalition’s lists.

The IAF has experienced similar pressures. In addition to the difficulties faced by the wider Muslim Brotherhood movement in Jordan, including the recent judicial decision to dissolve the Brotherhood in Jordan, pressures have been directed specifically at the party and its Islah lists.[13] Some of the non-IAF members have been encouraged to run on non-Islah lists in the coming election. This pressure has also spread to the IAF itself, with the secretary general of the party, Murad Adailah, indicating that some IAF members have been discouraged from running on Islah: an issue Adailah brought to the attention of the prime minister.[14] These pressures, as well as a belief that the party was unable to exert sufficient policy influence in parliament, led to discussion of a potential boycott of the coming polls, as the IAF did in the two elections preceding 2016 (2010 and 2013) because they believed the election framework and process did not promote political participation.[15] On September 21, the IAF’s Shura Council confirmed that it would participate this year. But since this decision, and even the registration of the official election lists, almost all of the non-IAF members (especially Christian candidates) have dropped out of Islah’s lists.

Beyond coalitions and parties, individual lists also faced pressure. Candidates who signaled their intention to join certain lists were encouraged to leave them (or change districts) and join others—often in surprising ways. These signals have complicated the already difficult game of musical chairs, contributing to problems in the construction of lists. Only a few strong lists have now come together. Even then, their members are largely choosing once again to campaign as individuals rather than lists. Only the lists that worked together effectively in the last election appear to be achieving any level of cooperation. It is consequently unlikely that there will be any further shifts in either the non-centrist seats or those of the centrists in the new parliament.

 

Back to Familiar Electoral Waters

 

It should come as no surprise that the lofty predictions for greater cooperation among political parties and candidates have been overtaken by pessimistic assumptions that the election will be business as usual. This dynamic has been a key theme of the kingdom’s elections since the early 1990s—and it has taken a toll not just on candidates but also on voters.

After repeated rounds of disappointing elections that have consistently yielded the same parliamentary composition, the overwhelming majority of Jordanians have grown disinterested in electoral politics.
After repeated rounds of disappointing elections that have consistently yielded the same parliamentary composition, the overwhelming majority of Jordanians have grown disinterested in electoral politics.[16] The government has plastered the country with posters highlighting the benefits of voting, but Jordanians are not convinced. And the posters are not enough to focus attention on the elections in the midst of a worsening pandemic, a declining economy and dramatic developments across the region.

Abu Qais has expended considerable energy rallying his networks, but his efforts have been met with apathy and frustration. Most Jordanians will not bother to cast a ballot, and the few who still want to vote have expressed frustration with the continued inability of candidates to work together. Even Jordanians who only passively observe the kingdom’s politics would rather vote for a list than a “one-man show.” They know that even “superman” members of parliament are ineffective if they are alone.

 

[E.J. Karmel is a PhD student in political science at the University of Guelph.]

 


 

Endnotes

 

[1] Interview with Khaled Kalaldeh, chairman of the Independent Election Commission, Amman, Jordan, August 8, 2020.

[2] Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan, “Election Law of the House of Representatives for the Year 2016,” 2016.

[3] Rased and Al Hayat Center, “The Trends of Jordanian Political Parties for the 2020 Parliamentary Elections,” August 11, 2020.

[4] Interview with Ahmed Safadi, member of the National Pact, Amman, Jordan, August 8, 2020.

[5] Interview with Nathir Arabiat, secretary general of the Justice and Development Party and head of the Central Political Parties current, Amman, Jordan, July 2, 2020.

[6] Wael Abu Anzeh, “Jordan Political Parties Budget Analysis,” Netherlands Institute for Multiparty Democracy, Amman, Jordan, June 2019.

[7] Al Jazeera, “Jordan…A Wide Campaign against Tax Evasion and the Speaker of the Parliament Accuses the Government of Targeting His Family,” July 13, 2020.

[8] Interview with Abla Abu Olbeh, leader of the Jordanian Democratic People’s Party (HASHD), Amman, Jordan, July 2, 2020.

[9] Interview with Haitham Ereifej, commissioner of the Civil Alliance Party, Amman, Jordan, July 2, 2020.

[10] The coalition includes the Jordanian Communist Party, Jordanian Democratic Popular Unity Party, Jordanian Democratic People’s Party, Jordanian Arab Socialist Baath Party, Arab Progressive Baath Party and the Arab National Movement Party.

[11] Interview with Daifallah Farraj, general secretary of the Arab National Movement Party, Amman, Jordan, September 6, 2020.

[12] Interview with Faraj Tumaizeh, secretary general of Jordanian Communist Party, Amman, Jordan, September 8, 2020.

[13] Roya News, Jordan’s Highest Court Dissolves Muslim Brotherhood,” July 17, 2020.

[14] Interview with Murad Adailah, secretary general of the Islamic Action Front, Amman, Jordan, July 21, 2020.

[15] Interview with Dima Tahboub, Islah candidate and English spokesperson of IAF, Amman, Jordan July 5, 2020.

[16] In a poll conducted by the International Republic Institute before the coronavirus pandemic, 72 percent of Jordanians indicated that they would definitely not vote in a parliamentary election, and only 15 percent said they would definitely vote. International Republican Institute (IRI), “Public Opinion Survey: Residents of Jordan,” November 14–22, 2019.

 

How to cite this article:

E.J. Karmel "Jordan’s 2020 Election Shifts from Landmark Poll to Business as Usual," Middle East Report Online, November 05, 2020.
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