Changes in Election Law Are Missed Opportunity in Jordan

December 3, 2012

Read Statement in Arabic

Amman, Jordan – IRI's pre-election assessment in advance of Jordan’s upcoming parliamentary elections found that recent changes to the electoral framework offer limited progress and, despite some positive changes, are a missed opportunity for greater reform.

As the Kingdom prepares for parliamentary elections scheduled for January 23, 2013, fundamental challenges to political reform have not been addressed in the new election law, adopted in June 2012, resulting in a sense of disappointment among many stakeholders. Notable among these are:

  • The continuance of Jordan’s single non-transferrable vote system ensures that a majority of parliamentarians will continue to be elected along tribal lines favoring independent candidates at the expense of political parties.
  • The legal right for political movements and independent candidates to compete with political parties for the 27 national list seats does not encourage political party participation to the degree that a system restricted to parties might have done.
  • The uneven number of votes per member of parliament, which varied in 2010 from one seat per 7,500 voters to one seat per 46,000 voters, has not been addressed, thereby failing to provide an equitable distribution of seat allocation.

Two changes should make a positive impact.  First, a change to the constitution in 2011 provided for the establishment of the Independent Election Commission (IEC) for the first time in Jordan’s history.  Second, the new election law allocates 27 seats based on a new proportional list elected on a national, rather than a district, basis which improves the potential for developing parliamentary blocs with national appeal.

Jordan’s citizens also have concerns about the upcoming elections.  IRI’s July 2012 public opinion poll showed citizens were split on whether the new election law was an improvement over the previous one, and on the chances for the IEC to ensure fair and transparent elections.  A successful voter registration campaign, carried out from August to October in accordance with the new law and supervised by the IEC, was a vote of confidence for the IEC, with 2.28 million Jordanians registering.  Much now will hinge on electoral preparation and turnout.  Ultimately, the success of the IEC in carrying out its first election will depend in large part upon how determined the Government of Jordan is to prevent interference in the IEC’s work and in the election process in general.

Assessment Team Findings

IRI’s assessment team, which was in Jordan from October 17-21, 2012, found significant support for the way the IEC is handling the dual-track task of building up its own organization while conducting all aspects of electoral preparation.  In meetings with civil society organizations and political parties, team members were told that the IEC is committed to transparency and that IEC staff, starting with the chairman, have been open and accessible.

The most often cited criticism of the IEC was how the institution handled issues of group registration.  Specifically, the team heard several complaints about collective registration, which manifests in several ways.  For example, the team heard numerous accounts of family members registering members of his or her family, a process that, while legal under Jordanian law, could easily lend itself to fraud or to individuals being registered against their will.  They also heard allegations that candidates, through proxies, registered eligible voters in their community, and are holding the voter cards of individuals to use as leverage, either by paying voters to vote a certain way or destroying registration cards in the event the voter does not agree to support a specific candidate(s).

Although the IEC has to date earned credibility, the assessment team found that there is still concern over how the IEC relates to other state authorities, such as the police, judiciary or municipal authorities, and the IEC’s inability to press for real action to resolve issues.  The team was informed that there is a disinclination for these other state bodies to cooperate with the IEC because their sphere of influence is being reduced.

Given the relatively short time the IEC has had to prepare for elections, the commission was required to retain some staff from Jordan’s Ministry of Interior, which formerly managed elections, to assist with the technical administration of the process.  Although the IEC is to be commended for preparing in a short period of time, the commission’s independence could be questioned if it becomes too reliant on Ministry of Interior staff.

Finally, regarding the IEC, the lack of training for staff is an area of concern; one civil society group engaged in domestic monitoring conducted a survey that showed up to 53 percent of the Civil Status and Passports Department staff engaged during the voter registration process had not received any training prior to the registration period.  Nonetheless, the IEC should be commended for an ambitious goal to train 24,000 polling station workers in advance of the elections.

Regarding the election law, there is a vocal opposition that considers the recent changes to the electoral framework to fall short of needed reforms in Jordan.  A number of political groupings, including most prominently the Muslim Brotherhood-affiliated Islamic Action Front, have called for a boycott of the January 23 elections.  They charge that the new electoral law perpetuates the status quo by ensuring most parliamentarians will continue to be elected along tribal lines. Specifically, the country’s single non-transferrable vote system remains in place.

IRI’s assessment mission notes the missed opportunity to reconsider a system that provides for an equal number of voters per seats in districts, which would result in a more representative parliament.

Another missed opportunity in the election law was the promotion of political parties, a cornerstone of King Abdullah’s vision for a more democratic Jordan.  Although the number of list-based seats was increased from 17 to 27, the legal right for political movements and independent candidates to compete with party-lists does not encourage political party participation to the degree that a system restricted to parties might have done.  Additionally, if Jordan wants to encourage the election of a more representative parliament, the number of seats elected from national proportional lists should constitute a higher percentage of seats than the current 18 percent.

The assessment team was told that the new law on press and publications was an attempt by the government to stifle dissent, although it remains to be seen how the law might impact election coverage or campaigning.  On a related note, state media in Jordan is required to provide equal air time for all candidates; however, there are no regulations stipulating when candidates’ statements are to be aired.  This leaves the process open to favoritism and could unfairly benefit candidates granted prime time coverage.  The misuse of media may also have direct negative consequences.  For example, one civil society group told the team that state media is employing a negative campaign aimed at those who are boycotting the election, and that private media is already running candidate advertisements in violation of the election law, which states that campaigning cannot begin until one month prior to the elections.

The 2012 election law, like its predecessors, fails to address campaign financing.  Several stakeholders said that a lack of a maximum spending limit for electoral campaigns could create problems during the official campaign period.

In a final note, the team observed a noticeable difference of opinion among rural voters versus voters, analysts and political stakeholders in the capital.  During a meeting with a citizen’s committee in Ajloun, a city two hours north of Amman, the team heard a more positive experience from citizens planning to participate in the election who attested that they and their family members had all registered to vote by choice.  However, some expressed concern that there was less accountability with a national list as opposed to the stronger voter-parliamentarian connection resulting from districts.

The team was able to interview a number of youth and was encouraged by those planning to vote and who were open to learning more about political parties.  As young people constitute a growing segment of Jordan’s population, the success of parties, candidates and the country’s electoral institutions in mobilizing their participation is increasingly important to the success of Jordan’s reforms.

IRI conducted the assessment at the invitation of the Jordan’s IEC from October 17-21, 2012, to measure Jordan’s progress on electoral and political reforms, and to provide a baseline from which to measure the transparency and credibility of the country’s electoral process.  During the mission, delegates interviewed a variety of stakeholders and reviewed both the technical and political aspects of forthcoming parliamentary elections.

Mission team members were Danya Greenfield, deputy director the Rafik Hariri Center at the Atlantic Council; Reem Obeidat, an independent media and elections expert; and Gretchen Birkle, deputy director of the Middle East and North Africa division at IRI.

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