The Jordanian government has been setting the stage for the September 20 legislative elections by addressing the disparity between political and tribal candidates—without empowering the Muslim Brotherhood. Aware of the electoral challenges, the latter is looking to the tribes to form electoral alliances to boost its popularity. The election might well be a referendum on the state’s gambit to weaken the Muslim Brotherhood (MB) by empowering palace-aligned Islamists.
With its limited constitutional powers, Jordan’s parliament is more important for its role in public debates—with parliamentarians shaping the political discourse—than as a legislative branch of government. This weakness is accentuated by the means by which Parliament is elected. Each election has had a seat allocation slanted toward rural areas in order to over-represent the East Bank tribes at the expense of political parties. These tribes have come to benefit disproportionately from public sector employment, preferential university admissions, and project spending. The “one vote” system by district, in place since 1993 as a reaction to previous electoral success of the MB, has further disadvantaged parties because citizens tend to vote for the tribal candidate. Thus each parliament has had a tribal majority with an interest in maintaining structural dysfunction.
The recent election law sought to address this disparity by abolishing the national-level proportional seats and creating a new district-level proportional system based on local electoral alliances. There will be 130 seats (115 assigned to districts in addition to 15 for the women’s quota). For each district, voters are to first choose a list and then have the option of voting for one or more candidates on that list.
Yet this does not change the likelihood of an unnatural rural majority. The seat allocation, which was not part of the election law but published separately afterward as an executive decree, increases representation from 2013 only slightly. For example, according to Jordan’s new official census, Amman has 38.6 percent of Jordan’s citizen population but 29 of 130 seats (22 percent), Irbid has 20 percent of the population but 20 seats (15 percent), and Zarqa has 14 percent of the population but 13 seats (10 percent). By contrast, heavily tribal areas of the country are over-represented by around two-to-one. Karak has 4 percent of the population but 11 seats (9 percent), and several provinces have precisely five seats (4 percent of total) but smaller populations: Jarash (2.5 percent), Maan (1.9 percent), Madaba (2.4 percent), Mafraq (4.8 percent), Tafila (1.4 percent), and Ajlun (2.4 percent). There are also four seats each allocated to Bedouin areas, which is around 1–2 percent of the population, and these voters elect 12 seats, or nearly one-tenth of parliament.
While the predominant view has consistently been that stronger parties are needed to have a more effective parliament, this does not seem likely to be the result. Indeed, former prime minister Abdullah Ensour justified abolishing the national proportional seats, which were introduced in the 2013 election law and favor parties over tribal candidates, as being compensated by the creation of proportional districts. Yet it now appears that this may lead to alliances between parties and tribal figures—who had previously run against one another—diluting whatever policy agenda they had, as party campaigns have been framed to avoid real debates. Furthermore, strict proportional representation at the district level, with no bonus seats for the leading party, means parliament is likely to be fragmented again by a series of small- to medium-sized coalitions.
The main trend has been for lists to put a strong candidate at the top, and the remaining slots are filled with lesser candidates whose role is to bring their local supporters to vote for the list in exchange for some service or compensation, legal or otherwise. This has come to be known in the street as hashwat, from the term for dental fillings. Yet because there are 230 lists running 1,293 candidates for just 130 seats, few lists can hope to have more than just the top candidate win. As former parliamentarian Mohammad Zureiqat recently explained on Roya television’s “Pulse of the Nation,” instead of “the purchase of consciences”—a reference to vote-buying—now the typical practice is the purchase of down-list candidates themselves for the weight that they add to the list.
Thus the MB’s political arm, the Islamic Action Front (IAF), is not running candidates under its own name but under a broad coalition called the National Alliance for Reform. After the IAF boycotted the last two elections, this affiliated coalition has gotten more media coverage than any other by far, and of the total noted above, the IAF coalition has 20 lists with 122 candidates. As an example of the hashwat practice, the IAF coalition recruited former minister Abdullah al-Akayleh, whom they reportedly convinced to run in Amman (as opposed to his home province of Tafila) after they assured him of a crushing win in the capital. The IAF expects a boost in tribal votes in the south from Akayleh’s endorsement. Likewise, IAF leaders have ditched their longstanding slogan, “Islam is the Solution,” in favor of broad themes, while also including tribal candidates and candidates for the seats reserved for Circassians, Chechnyans, and even Christians. As IAF Secretary-General Mohammad Zyoud put it, the coalition’s campaign “will focus on building the national consensus and strengthening national unity.”
Competing Islamists are running smaller but still notable lists, and how well Islamists aligned with the monarchy fare compared to the IAF coalition may be the more important outcome of this election. The Muslim Center Party (MCP), which split from the MB in 2001 and received 16 seats in the 2013 election (the most of any list), is running 14 lists with 84 candidates, of which only 23 are party members. Like the IAF, the MCP is running with tribal candidates, and even stated that it was not using its own name on any of the lists “for electoral and tribal reasons.” Similarly, the Muslim Brotherhood Society, which split from the mainline MB in March 2015 and received official recognition of ownership over contested MB properties in Aqaba and Amman, is running on a list with the political wing of the Zamzam Initiative, a group of MB activists who were involved in the same split.
Both of these factions may be viewed as regime-sponsored Islamists. Former prime minister Samir al-Rifai, whose family is a bulwark of the monarchy and not known for Islamism, spoke at the launch conference for the MCP, at which AmmonNews quoted Secretary-General Madallah al-Tarawneh as “emphasizing the party’s standing with His Majesty the King in clarifying the pure image of Islam and defending it.” So it should not be a surprise that the party and the monarchy are in a sense allies, and Tarawneh has said that the MCP had an alliance with Zamzam in districts where the latter was not running candidates.
The women’s quota, aimed at increasing the percentage of women elected to office, appears to be creating a kind of parallel election in which women mainly run against one another. A report last month from An Eye on Women, a Jordanian women’s organization, noted that the 230 lists had nominated 258 women, and because in 198 lists there was only one woman, the women were largely competing for the quota, and not the general election.
Most campaigns, like that of the IAF, have focused on vague slogans related to “national unity” and the “Palestinian cause” with no clear program—though there are some exceptions, mainly from individuals with a private sector background. Given parliament’s limited powers and the distorting impact of seat allocation, the primary significance of this election could be as a referendum on the state’s efforts to weaken the Muslim Brotherhood. If its “reform” coalition easily defeats regime-aligned Islamists, it could be a black eye for the establishment.
Kirk H. Sowell is the principal of Utica Risk Services, a Middle East-focused political risk firm.