The committee supervising ballot box 31 in the Red Sea city of Aqaba arrived before dawn on November 9 to outfit the schoolroom with the necessary equipment: a plywood booth with a blue curtain mounted on the wall for voting, a clear plastic box for ballots, a computer for verifying voter registration, printed ballots, and tent cards identifying the civil servants supervising the process. After showing that the ballot box was empty and closing it with numbered seals, the chairman opened the poll promptly at 7:00 a.m. and the half-dozen women acting as poll watchers for candidates cast their votes. Then we all sat and waited for the voters to come.
On the other hand, the government put much less effort into crafting an electoral law that would have been broadly acceptable within Jordan, thereby alienating the country’s principal opposition party, the Islamic Action Front (IAF). And structural problems within the political system—namely the chronic underrepresentation of citizens in urban areas and the general powerlessness of the parliament—will dog the newly elected assembly, however properly elected.
Voting and Counting Process
Candidate representatives and Jordanian civil society observers were also credentialed and stayed to witness the process from the early morning set-up until ballots were counted and the tally delivered in the evening. Still, I saw several flaws in procedure: some electoral committees failed to actually count their ballots at the beginning of the day (in order to do a full reconciliation of the vote at the end), and uniformed police officers remained in the room at the vote count I witnessed, in violation of the law, although I saw no evidence that they influenced the results in any way.
Stepping back from the micro level, however, this image of transparency begins to blur. First, no independent electoral commission exists in Jordan. Elections are run by two government ministries—the Ministry of Interior and the Ministry of Political Development—very much in that order. Second, the concept of virtual sub-districts in the electoral law raises the possibility that government officials could have stacked the deck in favor of certain candidates. While each voter could cast only one vote within a given district, candidates actually competed against each other in small groups or sub-districts (with the highest vote-getter in each group winning). In theory, candidates did not know against whom they would compete when they chose a sub-district, but it seems possible that government officials could have encouraged a favored candidate to run in a certain virtual sub-district against weaker rivals. Indeed, it is difficult to understand any other rationale for the virtual sub-district system.
Finally, while the voting and counting at each individual ballot box was open to scrutiny, the aggregation process that yielded the final results and voter turnout figures was not, and results from individual polling stations were not posted in a way that would allow outsiders to check the credibility of what was announced.
Was There Real Competition?
At each of the 30 voting places that my observation partner and I witnessed, candidates sent representatives who stayed from the beginning of the process to the end with only the shortest bathroom breaks, keeping a parallel vote count and speaking up promptly to question anything that might constitute a violation of protocol. Candidates stopped in at voting stations, careful to avoid talking to voters but greeting poll workers and observers politely and checking in with representatives about the turnout.
Certainly it seems that there was real competition among these candidates at the local level, but at the national level this picture breaks down. Without the participation of the IAF—the country’s only political party with a broad base of support—competition and debate remained local and had a sterile quality. Electoral slogans were soporifically similar: “your candidate,” “national unity,” “reform,” “Jordan for all,” and so on. My own favorite was “no slogans,” used by Reem Badran, the only female candidate to win a seat in her own right rather than via the women’s quota (12 out of 120 seats).
Voter Turnout Doubted
Jordanians, in any event, received the announced turnout figure with skepticism, viewing it as the government’s attempt to prove that it could hold meaningful elections without real opposition. A cartoon published on the back page of the independent daily al-Ghad on November 10 showed a small, pathetic figure with a blackened eye popping out of a battered box labeled “Democracy,” bearing a flag with the official turnout of 53 percent. The caption read, “The mark of success.”
Two Questions and One Precedent
However perfect or imperfect the November 9 elections, two important questions remain unanswered. First, will the incoming assembly enjoy more credibility with the public than the one elected in 2007, which was so delegitimized by election rigging and irresponsible behavior that the public applauded King Abdullah’s 2009 decision to dissolve it? Second, what steps, if any, will the Jordanian government take to address festering concerns about the electoral system and the role of the parliament?
Moreover, it will be difficult for the parliament to be taken seriously and for deputies and political parties to gain credibility with the public if the parliament has few real opportunities to shape public policy. Thus, unless the Jordanian government is willing to allow significant amendments to the electoral law and consider giving the parliament greater powers—such as more meaningful budgetary oversight and the ability to initiate legislation without government approval—the goal of a more credible assembly is likely to remain elusive.
Whether or not the new parliament is deemed a success, Jordan’s elections established the precedent of opening much of the process to scrutiny by domestic and international monitors. It was easy enough for the Jordanian government to do that this time, with no serious competitors at the national level. Reversing precedent in future elections, however, when the IAF or other serious competitors might well participate, would be difficult. Therefore we will have to wait for another election to learn whether 2010 represented an important step forward or a brief moment of transparency in Jordanian politics.