The Middle East Channel

The implications of Jordan's new electoral law

The government of Prime Minister Awn Khasawneh unveiled its new draft electoral law this week. Promulgated by the government, and then issued by royal decree, the new law now goes to parliament for study and debate. The response has been swift, with the debate occurring not only under the dome of the Jordanian Parliament, but also throughout society -- from street discussions, to cafes, to the twitterverse. Political parties in particular have been quick to condemn the new law, with the opposition threatening an electoral boycott that would render the whole process meaningless. Today, activists are participating in major demonstrations protesting the proposed law and commemorating the 23rd anniversary of the 1989 unrest that led to the liberalization process in the first place.

These demonstrations, then, are not new. The kingdom has seen street demonstrations almost every Friday since December 2011 calling for various aspects of reform: combating corruption (especially in the context of the economic privatization process), checks and balances between the branches of government, a more independent judiciary, a reduced role for the mukhabarat in public life, and new more democratic laws on parties and elections. As the winds of change swirl around the region, leaving trails of violence and unrest across almost every Jordanian border, Jordanians themselves have continued to pursue reform rather than revolution. Whether or not that situation takes a more dramatic turn depends on the extent of successful and meaningful reform in the kingdom, with the electoral law as one key piece of the overall puzzle.

Since initiating the political liberalization process in the kingdom in 1989, Jordan has seen many new electoral laws. Almost every parliamentary election is preceded by a new one. The current lower house of parliament, for example, was elected on the basis of the most bizarre system in Jordanian history, including both real and "virtual" electoral districts. Most Jordanians found the system baffling and were happy to see it go. But since then debate has continued on the best parameters for a more democratic electoral system. And indeed the debate over reform in Jordanian politics has ranged far beyond elections. The 2012 electoral law bill is therefore part of a broader package of reforms -- including laws on political parties as well as amendments to the constitution.

Previous electoral laws used differing versions of a district plurality system. The 1989 elections, for example, allowed for multiple votes matching the number of representatives in one's electoral district. Elections from 1993 onward switched to a one-person one-vote system, and gradually changed the districts and overall representation, so that from 1989 to the 2010 election, the number of members of parliament (MPs) in the lower house of parliament increased from 80 to 120. Opposition parties have consistently called for revoking the one-person one-vote system, and replacing it either with the earlier multiple vote system, or with proportional representation based on party lists.

As is typical of the overall reform process, the regime responded minimally to opposition demands, but came nowhere near the position of opposition parties and activists. The new law does, however, abandon the one-person one-vote system and it also eliminates any thought of "virtual districts." Further, it provides for an independent electoral commission to oversee the electoral process (which had been especially problematic in the 2007 and 2010 elections).

For the first time, Jordan's proposed new electoral law also provides for a mixed electoral system, in which voters will actually cast three votes -- two votes will go to representatives in their multi-member electoral districts while a third vote will go to a party list at the national level. The parliament will expand from 120 to 138 representatives, including 15 seats to be allotted as part of the "women's quota" to ensure women's representation in parliament. This is an increase from the previous 12 seats.

Another 15 seats (within the overall 138) will be drawn from political parties via a party list system. This is new in modern Jordanian politics, and indeed opposition parties have been demanding party lists and some form of proportional representation (PR) to replace the one-person one-vote system. In a strict and perhaps technical sense, the government has met this wish, but only technically. The parties have consistently demanded either a straight PR system, or a mixed one -- with 50 percent of seats each from PR or plurality voting systems. What they got, so far, is 15 out of 138 seats -- a far cry from their actual goal. And even within this limited framework, no party is permitted to take more than five seats. Predictably, the Islamist movement has seen this as a dig aimed at them. And also predictably, the opposition parties went on the offensive immediately, spanning the ideological spectrum from leftist parties to the Islamist movement.

The bill remains, however, only a draft piece of legislation, subject to amendment by parliament. So why all the fuss? Surely parliament can make the necessary changes and bring the law more in line with what the pro-reform opposition parties are demanding. Or can it? As many Jordanian activists noted on twitter, the parliament itself may be an obstacle to reform. To be blunt, most (but by no means all) pro-democracy opposition activists are outside of parliament, precisely because of problems with the previous elections and electoral laws. The current parliament was elected in 2010, via the now-infamous virtual district format. Accordingly, in several recent visits to Jordan I heard no end of jokes at the expense of parliament, including multiple plays on the idea of virtual elections having produced a virtual parliament.

But MPs have begun to address the legislation, some voicing support, some criticizing it. Many voiced concern not over the electoral system, but over the ethnic implications of districts, representatives, and the distribution of seats by locality -- which can often be read as distribution by ethnicity. Conservative MPs in particular often want to maintain East Jordanian majorities in parliament, while many other activists -- both Palestinian and East Jordanian -- often call from a more majoritarian and democratic level of representation (which would, in effect, represent a demographic shift toward more Palestinian representation).

Unfortunately, these debates often trigger accusations of disloyalty and unpatriotic motives, not from the regime to its opposition, but rather between and among political elites. In debates that should actually sound familiar to observers of U.S. politics, what one faction sees as essential to fairness and equality, another invariably sees as appeasement of a particular constituency.

Meanwhile, in recent weeks MPs have been embroiled in debates of a very different nature, mainly rejecting assorted other reform efforts. The elected deputies of the lower house, for example, have rejected amendments from the royally-appointed upper house to reform the civil service retirement law. At present, the law provides for retirement pensions for civil servants, naturally; but the controversy concerns whether MPs should receive retirement pensions for life, even if they have served a mere one term or less. The MPs of the lower house disappointed Jordan's reform movement, once again, by rescuing their own pensions from the budgetary chopping block. And this came only days after voting in favor of permanent diplomatic passport privileges for MPs (and therefore against moves to restrict these privileges to sitting ministers, select top officials, and members of the royal family).

This may not be the best body, in short, to make key decisions regarding the future of elections, parties, and governance in Jordan. So while the MPs may indeed tweak the legislation before them, the larger demands for far greater change and far greater reform will actually come from outside parliament -- from opposition parties, professional associations, independent activists, and youth movements. Voices favoring greater democratization and reform can be heard in the streets, in the media, in the blogosphere, on twitter, and in public discussion such as the Hashtag Debates.

As much debate as the new law has triggered amongst Jordan's many pro-reform constituencies, political opposition in Jordan has taken a major turn in the last few years by moving beyond just the perennial new electoral law debates. The electoral law matters, to be sure. But opposition forces have rallied over a diverse set of demands that may seem disparate or even muddled to less democratically minded forces in the kingdom, but in actuality represent a fairly clear program. Pro-democracy and pro-reform activists in parliament have at various times called for more checks and balances between the legislature and executive authority (often arguing for a more constitutional monarchy), a more independent judiciary, the release of activists jailed in demonstrations, a reduced role for the mukhabarat in daily life, and an end to corrupt governmental and business practices in the context of the country's longstanding economic privatization program.

The stakes are high regarding all these issues -- and of course regarding the electoral law as well -- since the new rules will set the stage for new elections and a new parliament, and opposition forces hope (for the first time in modern Jordanian history) to see future governments drawn from parliamentary majorities, rather than by royal appointment. But the stakes are also high in the broader regional sense. As these debates over the nature and parameters of participation in Jordanian governance and public life proceed, the Arab uprisings continue to transform the region. Jordan is by no means immune to these pressures, especially as civil war rages in Syria and tens of thousands of Syrian refugees cross the border into Jordan.

As a recent detailed report by the International Crisis Group suggests, the internal and external pressures for change show no sign of receding. For the regime, these dangerous currents signal a need to be slow and methodical, but for reform activists, they signal a desperate need to move faster, and more thoroughly, in transforming Jordan via reform, before it is too late.

Curtis R. Ryan is associate professor of political science at Appalachian State University and author of Jordan in Transition: From Hussein to Abdullah and Inter-Arab Alliances: Regime Security and Jordanian Foreign Policy.

KHALIL MAZRAAWI/AFP/Getty Images

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