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Sada - Analysis

Jordan’s Ongoing Election Law Battle


  As the standoff over Jordan’s new electoral law continues, what is at stake?


Following a series of Arab Spring-inspired reforms, Jordan’s parliament passed a new electoral law on June 19, paving the way for elections to be held by the end of this year. The vote was not without contention. In a manifestation emblematic of the larger debate raging over the type of electoral system the legislature should adopt, 20 MPs threatened to resign—two even came to blows—over the proposed law. Hours after it was approved, leader of the Islamic Action Front (IAF) Hamza Mansour dismissed it as “just a cosmetic change meant to buy time and insufficient for real reforms.” 

Opposition parties have long called for amending the “single non-transferable vote” (SNTV) system in place since 1993, on the basis that (among other shortcomings) it benefits tribal nominees rather than those affiliated with a party. Unlike most electoral systems, SNTV combines multimember districts with the rule that a single vote is cast for a particular candidate, which often results in candidates winning seats with the support of only a small minority of the voting population. 

Under the new law, the electorate will have two votes: one for candidates competing under the old (SNTV) system at the district level, and another for candidates competing under a proportional electoral system at the national level. While the institution of a proportional system will promote gains for parties rather than tribes, the opposition still threatens to boycott the elections because only 17 seats (or 12 percent) of the now 140-seat parliament will be elected on this basis. 

In response to the threat of a boycott, on June 29 King Abdullah asked the parliament to convene an extraordinary session to reconsider the election law, and on July 4 the government proposed increasing the number of seats designated to the newly instated national proportional system to 27 (or about 19 percent). The IAF swiftly rejected this proposal; it seeks to have at least 30 percent of the seats be contested under this system. However, it remains to be seen if the party will announce an official boycott of the elections.

Although the main debate is over the electoral system, the new law also introduces two other significant changes. First, members of the security forces will be allowed to vote for the first time. According to a conservative estimate of this demographic published on the government’s website, this could affect approximately 10 percent of the country’s total vote (based on the number of voters in the 2010 elections). Considering that these individuals rely on the regime for their livelihoods and tend to come from tribal backgrounds (Jordanians of Palestinian background are not eligible to hold positions in the army), they are unlikely to vote for the opposition. Moreover, three more seats for women from Bedouin districts will be added, giving these already overrepresented tribal districts even more power in the parliament. 

The SNTV system presents a number of problems for large parties with regionally dispersed support, like the Muslim Brotherhood’s IAF. The framework makes it difficult for parties to know the optimal number of candidates to run, as well as for voters to coordinate their votes. In each district, a party would want to run as many candidates as it believes it can win seats for; no more, because this will split its vote too thinly, resulting in none of its representatives being elected, and no less, so as to maximize the number of MPs. Trouble can arise, however, if party supporters fail to spread out their votes evenly among candidates; if, for example, all voters flock to the top nominee, that representative will emerge with more than enough votes to win, and too few votes will remain to support other party candidates. 

Additionally, the SNTV system is easily gerrymandered. The regime created large, multi-member districts in opposition party strongholds to magnify the problems of electoral strategy and voter coordination. The more seats a party expects to win within a single district, the more difficult these problems are to overcome—and the more likely that the party will win fewer seats than it could have under a proportional system. Voter representation among districts in Jordan has historically been very disproportionate, with more seats allocated to areas that are regime-loyal and fewer ones apportioned where Islamists and Jordanians of Palestinian origin reside. In the last election (2010) the most underrepresented district had just over 46,000 voters per MP—while the most overrepresented had less than 8,000. 

Given that the regime has information on the sizes and distribution of the various tribal populations, it is able to carve out districts tailored to the electoral success of the tribes that make up the backbone of its support. Tribes can be likened to small, well-disciplined parties; tribal voters are honor-bound to support family members in elections and often hold primaries to select candidates and coordinate their votes for the actual election; tribes also tend to be small enough to nominate only one or two candidates. These factors help to solve the problem of vote-splitting among the multiple contenders that larger political factions face. 

Finally, the SNTV system pushes candidates to cultivate a “personal vote.”1 When asked what their daily job entails, Jordanian MPs typically provide three answers: 1) the passing of legislation, 2) the monitoring of ministry budgets and affairs, and 3) the providing of personal services to their constituents. This last item creates conflict of interest in carrying out the first two duties of parliamentary office; MPs often end up trading approval of legislation, budgets, and other ministry affairs for personal favors on behalf of their constituents. Many MPs are also tied to their tribes back home by the same honor code that elected them, which requires that they provide for the welfare of their clans. For a political party like the IAF, which lacks access to the particular governmental benefits enjoyed by tribal candidates, it is difficult to compete against this dynamic.

Given these disadvantages, it is not surprising that the IAF has boycotted the majority of elections run under the SNTV system. The party’s preference is to return to the “block vote” system of 1989, in which each voter has multiple votes in multi-member districts, but can only vote for each candidate one time. This system often results in giving the group with the largest and most well-organized support base more seats than it deserves under strictly proportional rules. For example, in the 1989 elections, the Brotherhood won about 20 percent of the vote but took close to 30 percent of the parliamentary seats, while tribal candidates won around 60 percent of the vote but were rewarded with only about 40 percent of the seats. While this system is a bit complicated at times—imagine selecting nine different candidates to vote for in Irbid—it encourages the electorate to support candidates based on impersonal qualifications.

The national proportional system mitigates most of the problems of both the SNTV and bloc vote systems in Jordan. Yet, of serious concern is the lack of well-organized parties in the country besides the Brotherhood. There is no party list restriction on candidates running in the national proportional system, and large tribes that cross district boundaries still have a good chance of picking up some of these new seats. It remains to be seen whether or not the new electoral law will actually lead to a meaningful change in Jordanian parliamentary politics.

Kristen E. Kao is a Ph. D. Candidate at UCLA and a 2012 Boren Fellow. This article is based on research she conducted as a fellow at the American Center of Oriental Research in Amman, Jordan. 


[1] This logic comes from: Carey, John M. and Matther Soberg Shugart. 1995. “Incentives to Cultivate a Personal Vote: A Rank Ordering of Electoral Formulas.” Electoral Studies. 14 (4): 417-439.


Comments (6)

  • Prof. Laurie Brand
    The following sentence has multiple, serious errors in it: "Considering that these individuals rely on the regime for their livelihoods and tend to come from tribal backgrounds (Jordanians of Palestinian background are not eligible to hold positions in the army), they are unlikely to vote for the opposition." First of all, it is important to distinguish among the various forces that are part of the "security forces." Does she mean just the army, or is she including the GID, the Darak, etc.? Are members of all of these groups excluded from voting, or just the armed forces? Secondly, it is not true that Jordanians of Palestinian origin are not eligible to hold positions in the army. You will find them among the medical corps. There has certainly been discrimination in other parts of the armed forces, but there is no law that specifies this.   Finally, the author seems to think that only East Bankers come from so-called "tribal" backgrounds. How is she defining "tribal" in this case? If she means the word " `ashirah" in Arabic, then she has failed to understand that this is a form of social belonging/organization among many Jordanians of Palestinian origin as well. And, finally, even if one wants to limit this just to East Bankers, there has been plenty of anti-regime agitation among these tribes over the last months.   
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  • Elizabeth Buckner
    This is an excellent article -- it really provides clarity on such a nuanced and complicated topic. I have a couple follow up questions.

    It sounds like the new reforms strengthen the position of the tribes/bedouins and definitely the security forces. These don't sound "progressive" -- how are they being received by the Jordanians of Palestinian origin or urban, more secular Jordanians or even the Christian minority? Especially since they are made in the name of the Arab Spring?

    Also, who is the constituency of the IAF -- if its supporters were also members of tribes, etc. it would seem like they would be content with the reforms. Does the IAF see tribes as a fundamentally different constituency? Is IAF fundamentally urban -- I would have thought that in many places rural-ness in general correlates with religious conservatism, but I know that's not really the case in a lot of MENA nations...

    Also, in general it seems like there is a debate over what the job of MPs is -- is it personal patronage or is it to advocate ideological policies -- is there are bigger debate going on in Jordan over what Parliament should be doing in general and whether individuals or parties are best able to advocate for individual/groups' interests?
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  • Kristen Kao
    Thank you for your comments. I very much appreciate them. I wrote the following in response:

    In general, urban Jordanians do not seem to believe that the new election law will effect serious change in terms of parliamentary politics, and it seems that the IAF agrees with them as they have announced an official boycott of the elections.

    The IAF does work with tribes and about half of its leadership trace their backgrounds to East Bank origins. For the IAF it makes sense to run tribal candidates since both the candidate's tribe as well as Islamist sympathizers will support him in the elections. However, from a tribe's perspective if they can win a seat without the IAF, then the minimum winning coalition is usually the most desired situation in elections so as to not have to spread the spoils of the office amongst more beneficiaries. Therefore, in an electoral system that favors small coalitions, it is in the tribe's interest to coordinate amongst itself.

    The IAF tends to win in urban areas in Jordan because you are more likely to have greater diversity of voters as well as larger districts in these areas; it is difficult for a tribe to garner enough support to win in an election as life in the big city is less organized around the tribal system than in the countryside. Urban centers also have a higher proportion of Palestinian origin inhabitants. I do not claim anywhere in the article that only East Bankers have tribal backgrounds or ‘ashirahs. However, I would argue that tribal connections among Palestinians were severely weakened when they migrated to Jordan often losing both close proximity to their family members as well as their reliance on the tribe in times of need. Yet, there are a few places in Jordan where Palestinian origin tribes win seats in elections – the Sabawi for example among some of the other tribes concentrated in the refugee camps – but for the most part, Jordanians from Palestinian background do not win elections due to organization along tribal lines. In the context of the sentence referred to above in Professor Brand's comment, perhaps the word "rural" should have been added before "tribal backgrounds."
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  • Kristen Kao
    Currently there is widespread debate in Jordan about the proper role for the parliament. As Professor Brand notes, since the Arab Spring, there has been a notable escalation in anti-regime agitation among Jordanians of all backgrounds; much of this opposition is directed against the entrenched electoral system that favors candidates affiliated with a qabila or ‘ashirah, which reinforces personalistic politics in the legislature. The article highlights that under this system MPs are pressured to gain access to and provide particularistic governmental benefits for their personalistic support base – for example conscription in the army. However, this does not imply that the tribes are currently satisfied with this arrangement: the governmental budget has become severely strained in recent years resulting in less benefits for the country’s growing population, and therefore it is logical that there is criticism of this system even among those who gain special advantage from it. A different electoral system, for example a national party list system, should expand the support base of the MP and diminish the importance of the provision of particularistic benefits among his duties in office.

    By security forces, I meant the army, the police force, and the intelligence service as was stated in an earlier draft of the electoral law, which has now been withdrawn. The point of this sentence was to highlight that a significant number of citizens would be added to the electorate in the upcoming elections and they are largely from rural tribal backgrounds and are loyal to the regime. This statement remains valid. However, I mistakenly repeated information I had read in another article that Palestinians are not allowed to hold positions in the army or security forces:
    I apologize for this error.
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  • Christopher Rushlau
    I have learned painfully, from reading Naharnet and trying to figure out from it how "democracy" in Lebanon works, to look scrupulously at the dark corners of an explanation of a democratic system in that part of the world. Two of those corners present in Jordan are the appointed upper house--what is that?: an "oh, by the way" detail? The other is the gerrymandering. I don't know what a rational analysis of US federal voting would show, but, with the upper house in Jordan corresponding to the US Senate, where small states have as much clout as big states, yet that upper house already being in the King's hands, then the lower house should not have some seats representing 46,000 votes and others only 8,000 votes. Especially if it turns out that the more expensive seats are reserved for Palestinians.
    Why isn't your lead sentence about the degree to which this system cannot be called representative democracy? Are you rewarding the King for not being a total autocrat? If he doesn't execute another insulter of the royal honor this afternoon, should he get the Nobel Peace Prize?
    I was referred to your article by one at the Wash. Inst. for Near East Policy. Maybe I shouldn't assume that the Carnegie Endowment is not also part of the Israel movement.
    The general rule I've painfully learned is that just about everybody who publishes about democracy in MENA (Mom, I learned a new acronym) is an agent of imperialist racism. As the former State Dept. guy (financed by an Indian) was saying on the radio today, Pakistan is rational to do what "we" denounce as "double-dealing" in Afghanistan. How far from the Beltway do you have to go to find rational explanations for MENA behaviors, as opposed to "AIPAC good, rest all bad" symboles?
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  • Kristen Kao
    The goal of my article is to explain the new electoral law of Jordan and to situate it within a larger understanding of how different types of electoral institutions can be used to favor certain electoral coalitions over others in the country. The article criticizes the problems with the electoral system in Jordan (including flagrant gerrymandering) that prevent it from producing a truly representative governmental body and does not praise the King concerning the electoral politics of Jordan. Therefore, I am a bit confused by what part of the article you are criticizing. In the interest of providing useful research for reformers in authoritarian countries around the world, I attempt to remain objective in my commentary. Neither the current electoral system nor the King of Jordan alone prevent the country from transitioning into a full democracy, yet one article is too short a space to explain all the factors that contribute to its current state of authoritarianism. I do not think my analysis contributes to "imperialist racism," nor does it provide any commentary on Israel or AIPAC. I'd be more than happy to discuss this with you, my email is
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