Jordan’s parliament election on Tuesday is being touted as proof that the pro-Western monarchy is moving forward with democratic reforms despite regional turmoil and security threats.
Officials point to new rules of voting and the participation of the opposition Muslim Brotherhood for the first time in almost a decade. But critics argue that this year’s electoral reform — ostensibly meant to strengthen political parties — has fallen short and that the revised system continues to favor King Abdullah II’s traditional tribal supporters.
They expect the parliament being chosen Tuesday to be similar to the outgoing one — largely an assembly of individuals with competing narrow interests, widely dismissed by Jordanians as ineffective in dealing with endemic unemployment and other crises.
Such a legislature is still a long way from what Jordanians have long been told would be the goal of gradual reform — a strong parliament with a say in choosing the government, now the exclusive domain of the king.
The new election rules are “a step forward, but it is not yet enough to create a serious breakthrough on the reform track,” said analyst Oraib al-Rantawi. The rules replace the “one man, one vote” system that was introduced in 1993 and weakened political parties.
In Tuesday’s election, Jordanians will choose 130 members of parliament, with 15 seats reserved for women, nine for Christians and three for minority Chechens and Circassians. More than 4 million Jordanians over the age of 17 are eligible to vote, more than twice the number in the 2013 election, when voters had to pre-register.
Under the new rules, the country is divided into 23 districts, and voters choose candidates from competing lists in their district. In all, 1,252 candidates are running on 226 district lists. Voters can select one or more candidates on a list.
Only six percent of the lists are affiliated with a specific political party, 11 percent have some party representatives, 39 percent are independent and 43 percent are based on tribal affiliations, according to the International Republican Institute, a U.S.-based non-partisan group that seeks to promote democracy.
“The majority of voters base their voting habits on tribal affiliations, community roots and identity rather than approaches to policy,” the group said.
The most organized party is the Islamic Action Front, the political arm of the Muslim Brotherhood, a veteran opposition movement linked to the regional organization of the same name. The IAF competed in 2007, but boycotted parliament elections in 2010 and 2013, arguing the electoral system was unfair.
The Brotherhood has suffered setbacks in the region and in Jordan in recent years, in part because of a backlash of various governments to the 2011 Arab Spring uprisings. In Jordan, ideological arguments split the group into rival factions, with one recognized by the government as the official Brotherhood.
The original group has been outlawed in Jordan, but its political arm, the IAF, remains legal.
Al-Rantawi said he believes the IAF is running in this election — despite misgivings about the system — to avoid becoming irrelevant.
The mood among supporters was subdued at an IAF election rally over the weekend in Sweileh, a neighborhood in the capital, Amman. The outdoor gathering on a sandy lot drew a few hundred people, but several back rows of plastic chairs remained empty.
IAF spokesman Murad Adayleh said his party would push for economic and educational reform. “Our role will be to uncover the government’s wrong policies and address any mistakes,” he said, dismissing suggestions that a vocal, but small IAF faction could inadvertently serve as democratic window dressing.
Adayleh, who is also a candidate, said he expects his party will win between one-fourth and one-third of the seats.
Al-Rantawi said he believes about 30 seats are in play for political parties, including about 20 for the IAF, and that the remaining 100 seats would be split among individuals. Other parties are less well known nationally, including leftists, centrists and conservatives.
A debate among candidates from nine parties, held over the weekend at a hotel in Amman, rarely got beyond generalities, such as calls for lowering unemployment.
One of the newcomers on the scene, the Maan List, campaigned for separation of religion and state, still a relatively provocative idea in the conservative, overwhelmingly Muslim kingdom. Candidate Mohammed Numan, a pediatrician, called for ending what he described as a culture of shaming those not considered devout enough.
Growing voter apathy may be a key factor this year.
In an IRI poll in April, 87 percent of 1,000 respondents said the outgoing parliament didn’t accomplish anything worthwhile and more than half said they were somewhat or very unlikely to vote. The survey had an error margin of 3.5 percentage points.
Voter turnout in 2013 was 56 percent, said analyst Ayoub Al-Nmour of Al-Hayat, a civil society group that monitors elections. This year, the percentage of those casting ballots will likely be lower because the pool of eligible voters nearly doubled, though turnout could be higher in absolute terms, he said.
Some voters are discouraged by unequal representation. For example, the urban district of Zarqa, with 1.8 million people, including large numbers of Jordanians of Palestinian origin, gets 11 seats in parliament, the same number as the tribal Karak district, with just 300,000 residents, said Al-Nmour.
Mohammed Momani, the government spokesman, said the new voting system is a significant step toward political reform.
“The fact that Jordan is actually holding elections …in a region that is full of blood and fight and weapons — that in itself is important,” he said. “It shows the strength of this country, and the credibility of its institutions and the reform process.”
U.S.-based analyst David Schenker said Jordan invests in regular elections in part to polish its image in the eyes of Western military and financial backers.
“We know that the West has a special regard for Jordan, and we know that Jordan, because of this high regard … is able to charge very high rent,” said Schenker, of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy think tank.
“It costs money to do these elections and there are some risks involved, but for Jordan it’s important to display that the kingdom is different from other Arab states,” he said.