It is tempting to dismiss the January 23 parliamentary elections in Jordan as irrelevant given widespread voter apathy and the boycott by the largest opposition party (the Islamic Action Front), both due to the lack of substantive political reforms. The bright spot in this relatively bleak picture is that there is some value to holding relatively clean elections in a region where that is still unusual. Although the reforms introduced as part of the revised electoral law in October 2012 fell short of expectations (among both opposition forces and palace loyalists) there have been some notable changes that will reinforce expectations of fair and accountable processes, which will be important if King Abdullah II were to decide to relinquish some of his hold on power and make way for a more inclusive decision-making process.
The most important innovation since the 2010 elections is the establishment of the Independent Election Commission (IEC) which has proved to be a credible and respected body instilling greater confidence in the electoral process. In conversations this week, candidates and voters have repeatedly indicated a vast improvement in the registration over previous elections, and they anticipate a cleaner voting process with far less fraud and overt corruption. The IEC has referred several high-level cases of vote-buying to the courts (albeit somewhat belatedly), and at least three candidates are currently being prosecuted. The IEC has achieved a relatively high level of professionalism and organization, particularly for a body that had only a few months to establish itself and prepare for an election at the same time.
The primary deficits in the elections are related not to technical aspects of election administration, but rather to the presence of unqualified candidates, the continued domination of tribes in candidate selection and voting, the disenfranchisement of Palestinian-Jordanians, and the weak role of parliament as an institution. Palace supporters argue that the modest electoral reform represents an important step in an incremental process by introducing a proportional national list to select 27 out of 150 seats total. However, the system does little to strengthen political parties (the stated goal of electoral reform) and provides incentives for local elites and tribal figures to create lists based on personal influence rather than party affiliation or issue-based political programs. Furthermore, the allocation of the remaining seats is based on the old system that maintains unequal weighting of electoral districts toward rural areas, which disadvantages the urban Palestinian-origin citizens to the benefit of tribal areas.
Voter participation will be a key indicator to watch; the government is hoping for 60 percent turnout (the national average was 52 percent in 2010), but anything lower than 45 to 50 percent could be interpreted as a critical statement of the king’s reform agenda. The largest opposition force, the Muslim Brotherhood-affiliated Islamic Action Front (IAF) is actively boycotting the polls, but their anti-participation demonstration in Amman last Friday drew a paltry turnout, thus calling into question the impact of its calls for boycott. A number of leftist parties and other protest movements that initially called for a boycott moved away from the IAF position, and it remains unclear if the youth-led East Bank Herak movements will participate, protest, or just stay home.
What happens in the days and weeks after the election will be far more important than what happens on election day itself. In the second of a series of discussion papers, King Abdullah outlined an impressive vision for a robust parliamentary system, but falling short on similar promises he made in the past is exactly what led to the current lack of enthusiasm for this election. The primary issue is that Jordan’s parliament has little real authority, and few view it as an institution that can actually solve the most pressing issues on the top of the agenda: economic hardship and corruption. So long as parliament remains a weak and feckless institution, the best thing that Jordanians can hope for is a clean and fair electoral process that might serve their benefit in the future.
Danya Greenfield is the deputy director of the Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East at the Atlantic Council.