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Jordan: smoke, mirrors and election laws

‘Confusing? That’s the point! The Government has upgraded “Divide and Conquer” to “Confuse and Conquer”’.

Tareq Baconi
21 June 2012

On June 18, after interminable and at times explosive discussions, Jordan’s Lower House finally agreed on a new electoral law. The response was a mix of boycotts, celebrations, and overwhelming confusion.

The law raised the number of seats in Parliament to 140 from 120. Within those, it allocated 123 seats to be contested on a Governorate level and 17 seats on a national ballot. A quota of 15 seats was allocated for women, up from 12. The decision supposedly drew on recommendations set out by the Independent Elections Commission and the National Dialogue Committee.

Disgruntled objections immediately followed the passage of the law. Many scoffed at the view that the law took into account national sentiment expressed through many rounds of dialogue with the election committees. They felt their views were swept aside because the new election law in fact failed to address the one core issue it set out to reform – the controversial ‘one-person one-vote’ system.

In Jordan, unlike in many other Parliamentary democracies, electoral districts are represented by multiple seats in Parliament, yet voters are only allowed one vote on the district level. This, reformists argued, limited representation and promoted regime loyalists.

The way it accomplishes this is by diluting the vote. Instead of competing for a district, votes compete for one of several seats in a district. A candidate from an organised political party who gains majority votes would gain a seat in Parliament but would not be able to represent the district. Rather, he would represent the district alongside several other candidates who are unlikely to have the same political affiliations.

Taking into account tribal affiliations and extended family loyalties, candidates from organised political parties are easily overwhelmed, and they consequently struggle to have sufficient representation in Parliament. This electoral set-up shrewdly leverages Jordan’s electorate configuration to undermine organised political parties.

Reformists and political parties understand this gerrymandering only too well, and they have focused their reform campaign on attempting to gain multiple votes per person on the Governorate level. This, they hoped, would offset the imbalance in favour of tribal affiliations over political parties.

The new electoral law does no such thing. It maintains the one-person one-vote system on the Governorate level. To claim reform, the new law allows voters to also elect members from a ‘Closed Proportional National’ ballot. This ballot will be open to qualified candidates who will compete for one of the 17 seats allocated to them in Parliament. Considering the eligibility requirements and fixed seat allocation, this national list is likely to attract typical bigwigs rather than providing representative candidates from those competing for additional seats.

In any case, 17 out of 140 available seats are unlikely to offset the structural imbalance of ‘one-person one-vote’. Unsurprisingly therefore, most political party representatives stressed that the new law was simply another version of the old system, and have called for a mass boycott.

Voters are aware of the complex and disenfranchising actions the government is adopting to maintain its illusion of democracy while discouraging voters from engaging. In one past round, voters had to reconcile ‘virtual districts within districts’ into their voting approach. ‘Confusing? That’s the point!’, a dear friend and expert on Jordan in their own right, said to me, ‘the Government has upgraded “Divide and Conquer” to “Confuse and Conquer”’.

The litmus test to determine the success of the new election law is voter buy in, and at the moment, that is overwhelmingly negative. Considering the time it took for this law to pass, the King’s promise for new elections to be completed before the end of the year is dangerously close to being forfeited.

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