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.