Jordanians go to the polls on Jan. 23 to elect a new lower house of parliament. Since the last national elections in 2010, Jordan’s political landscape has been shaken by the Arab uprisings of 2011, the economy has deteriorated, and the violence of the Syrian revolution to the north has sent some 142,000 refugees fleeing into the country. Yet in the midst of this political and economic turmoil, many Jordanians have responded to the forthcoming elections with a collective shrug of the shoulders.
Excitement and anticipation have largely been overshadowed by skepticism and doubt about whether a new parliament will make any difference. The cynicism evident among significant segments of the population was captured in the response of one young man in the northern city of Irbid to the question of whether he intended to vote or not: “Why bother?” Jordanians have learned the hard way to expect little from their elected officials.
This reaction is not entirely surprising given both the limits of parliamentary authority in a political system dominated by the ruling Hashemite monarchy and the undistinguished track record of recent parliaments. Jordan’s 2007 parliament was dismissed by King Abdullah in 2009, half-way through its term, following a wave of media and popular criticism that characterized it as ineffective and corrupt.
The 2010 parliament did not fare much better. It too was dissolved by the king midway through its term, a victim not only of its poor performance but of the wave of protests that swept the region beginning in 2011, forcing four entrenched Arab leaders out of office.
Nonetheless, the elections this week might have been expected to generate more interest. That they have not is revealing of the countervailing pressures that confront the Middle East’s “authoritarian survivors” such as King Abdullah.
In his efforts to balance increasingly vocal demands for change against those for stability and security, the king has overseen a process of constitutional and electoral reforms that has included some important changes. Some restrictions on the formation of political parties were removed. For the first time, elections will be managed by an Independent Election Commission rather than the Ministry of Interior. Also for the first time, Jordanians will be able to vote for national party lists and not only district-level representatives. Despite this change, the district representatives will hold a large majority of seats in the next parliament. The quota for women has been raised from 12 to 15 seats, but the impact is offset by an increase in the size of parliament from 120 to 150 seats.
Nonetheless, the scope and pace of change has been too limited to address longstanding concerns about the fundamental fairness of Jordan’s electoral process, or about the limits of parliamentary authority.
Reforms did not address disparities in the size of electoral districts that privilege rural tribes at the expense of urban centers where Jordanians of Palestinian origin are concentrated. District size continues to vary from one seat for 7,500 voters in rural districts to as many as one seat for 46,000 voters in urban districts. No less important, Jordan’s parliament remains a weak institution. For the first time, the incoming parliament will play a role, in consultation with the king, in the selection of a prime minister. Yet its overall authority, including budgetary oversight and its ability to hold government accountable, remains highly constrained.
Reflecting the disappointment of Jordan’s opposition to the changes introduced since 2010, the Islamic Action Front, the political arm of Jordan’s Muslim Brotherhood, and the country’s largest political party, is boycotting this week’s elections. Among the broader public, however, it is apathy and indifference, rather than active opposition, which seem to capture the mood. Not yet persuaded that parliament matters, many Jordanians will stay at home rather than cast a ballot.
Election officials predict that voter turnout will reach as high as 50 percent of the country’s 2.2 million registered voters. Seasoned political observers, however, expect a far more modest turnout. At a moment in the history of the Middle East when citizens are demanding real political change, the king’s cautious-to-a-fault strategy of political reform seems unlikely to break through the apathy barrier in Jordan.
What do you think it would take to convert this kind of apathy to constructive civic participation? Let us know in the comments section below.
Steven Heydemann, USIP senior adviser for Middle East Initiatives, is participating in an election observation mission in Jordan sponsored by the International Republican Institute. The views expressed here are his own.