As the razzmatazz campaigns for the September 20 elections in Jordan wind down, Jordanians are gearing up to vote in great numbers, casting aside their economic woes in this turbulent region. These feverish pitches are meant to woo voters, who will elect the 18th 130-member Lower House of Parliament.
During their campaigns, candidates have moved quickly to woo potential voters through the press, television, radio, “yellow” weeklies, internet and the social media. These campaigns are already being labelled as high-tech and multi-tech with Facebook, Twitter and WhatsApp being popular channels to reach out to people.
Hind Al Fayez, the former female deputy of the Lower House woman, is standing for re-election in the Central Badia electoral district. Social media is the “number one tool” because everyone has access to it, she says, and she is personally using Facebook, YouTube and Twitter to get her message across.
In many ways, this may be seen as the culmination of Jordan’s popular parliamentary experiment that started in 1989, moving from traditional hustings to the more elaborate combination of wit, sarcasm, seriousness and political chin-wagging with outlandish proposals that you can’t help but smile at.
This came from the Aqaba candidate who, sitting in his plastic chair on the seafront, promised to retrieve Andalusia if he is elected. Then there was the Madaba candidate who alleged that he was promised a hefty sum if he didn’t run because he called for a “Palestine from the sea to the [Jordan] River”. And not to forget the slogan: “Yes to local chicken and not to imported one.”
But enough twaddle. Jordan’s election campaign that started in mid-August is serious and active. It is about wiping the slate clean to make way for change from what proved to be the most contentious and troublesome single-vote system to a more friendly and equitable proportional representative system, which seeks to bring in as many candidates of various political colours and has been implemented in 46 countries.
There have been many serious and thought-provoking placards, posters and slogans on Jordanian roads, roundabouts, lampposts and neighbourhoods, with pictures of individuals and lists of candidates.
At the start of the campaign — which couldn’t start soon enough for some — people were bombarded with catch-all Arabic slogans, translated by Petra, the Jordanian press agency. Among them were: “Change begins with your vote”, “Citizenship, justice, safety”, “Participate and make the future”, “Education reform, an utmost national priority”, “The homeland and your rights”, “The best are those who can best benefit the people”, “The homeland is for all and all are for the homeland”, “Jordan’s security, a red line”, “Combating corruption and the corrupt” and “Youth empowerment is my aim”.
Amman’s “Al Shahed” weekly columnist Mohammad Obeidat conveys the message well when he says the candidates “turned our roads into electoral photo shoots and exhibitions” resembling “a Cold War climate of allies against one another”.
Former Prime Minister Taher Al Masri, a veteran politician and former speaker in the Lower and Upper houses of Parliament, couldn’t resist having a go at the slogans. “They are called slogans. They don’t mean much especially in the light of a combined list, they don’t actually bring parties together,” he said.
These elections are being managed by the Jordan Independent Election Commission (IEC), created by His Majesty King Abdullah as part of the political reform process to guarantee that parliamentary polls are conducted to the highest international standards. Its slogan is “Jordan elects”.
The number of registered voters in these elections is more than 4 million with women surprisingly at 52 per cent of the electorate. About 230 lists have been registered for the elections, which include 1,293 candidates, of whom 257 are women.
“The lists and the number of candidates registered reflect the dynamism and volume of those that want to take part in this democratic process,” IEC spokesman Jihad Al Moumani said.
Two of the women in the running are Christians, and female candidates have managed to form two women-only lists — one in Zarka and the other in Amman’s Fifth District. The rest of the women are on lists dominated by men, creating the impression of token participation. This has led Muhannad Mbaideen, local television chat show host on one of the private channels, to undermine IEC’s optimism. “It seems there is an exploitation of women on male-dominated lists, as if she is a winning ticket, as if her entry into the list is a ‘piece of furniture’, reflecting what many people feel — women will not get more than the 15-seat parliamentary quota designated to them since 2003,” he said.
Mbaideen, however, did have praise for the new electoral law. “The candidates seem to be more diverse and [this] is an opportunity given to more than one individual from the same tribe.” And this is true — you see many placards on the streets of individuals from the same tribe and/or family, which is something new in this election campaign.
Other writers on the left and left-of-centre echo the same view. The new electoral system is closing a chapter on a long-running dispute between the Islamic Action Front (IAF) and the government over the single-vote system, which was introduced in 1993.
This time Islamists have done a complete turnaround. Having routinely boycotted elections in the last 20 years or so, the IAF, the political arm of the Muslim Brotherhood in Jordan, is now portraying itself as moderate, willing to take part in the wheeling and dealing of the kingdom’s political machine. From the start it said it would participate in the elections. It has an election committee led by Zaki Bani Rashied who appears to be elated. “We are running under the National Coalition for Reform and fielding 122 candidates in 20 lists across the country, including five Christian candidates and 19 women,” he said, marking the IAF as one of the biggest political forces in the kingdom despite the splits in the movement over the past years.
The IAF deputy general-secretary Ali Abu Sukkar expects the party to win 20 per cent of the overall seats. “We believe it is no longer appropriate to be away from the mainstream political life. We need to be involved in the decision-making process,” he said.
However, of the rest, not many political parties are expected to make much headway, although the new electoral law effectively makes way for a multi-party system. However, a “Rasd” (observation) survey shows that 6.4 per cent of the electoral lists are based on party lines, a figure that is expected to increase greatly in future. While parties have been brought back from the wilderness, they are yet to soak in Jordan’s political culture and mentality.
An evidence of this is the single posters and profile photos of candidates beside placards with member lists. The “individualist” mentality hammered by the old one-vote law still persists.
To prove the point, columnist Fahd Kheitan wrote in “Alghad” daily that 165 former Lower House deputies are standing for the coming elections and 95 of these were in the last legislature. He points out, however, that these are minuscule compared to the number of candidates standing for the first time. “[It] brings hope in the renewal of the parliamentary elites and pumps new and more youthful blood at the type of deputies who will occupy the coming legislature,” he said. At the same time, he is careful about the make-up of the new house, something which everyone will have to wait for until after September 20.
To organise awareness campaigns in order to help the society make the transition to the multi-list system is being recognised as one of the roles of the IEC. Secretary-general of the IEC Dr Khaled Al Kalaldah is frank about the task at hand. The posters of individual candidates prove that they are yet to let go of the “one-vote system” way of thinking, but they will have to do so, according to the new law, he told the local newspapers.
This was seconded by chief of the IEC Monitoring Section Sultan Al Qudah. “Attracting potential voters is still done on an individual level despite a law mandating proportional lists, which are made on programmes. The IEC’s role is to make voters aware of this, including civil society institutions, parties, media establishments, students and those who want to be considered for elections — in all electoral districts and among all nationals,” he said.
With just a few days to go for the elections, many are hopeful for a seat in that prestigious hall. All are banking on the mood of the electorate. I was surprised by a taxi driver who said, “I will not necessarily vote for an Islamist candidate, but for the best person who can improve my life.”
According to a survey of more than 1,200 people above the age of 18 by Fineeq Economic and Information Studies Centre carried out just before the campaigns started, only 39 per cent of those registered will cast their vote on September 20, 42.1 per cent won’t participate and 19 per cent are still undecided. The last category will play a crucial role in who gets to the Lower House. And as the political ups and downs unfold in the wake of these elections, Jordan gets ready for yet another parliamentary term, and the successful elections will be a vindication of the new electoral law.
Marwan Asmar is a commentator based in Amman. He has long worked in journalism and has a PhD in Political Science from Leeds University in the UK.