As Jordan heads toward parliamentary elections to be held by the end of 2010, recommendations to reform the electoral system made by the nongovernmental National Center for Human Rights (NHCR) have touched off a firestorm of debate in Jordanian political circles.  Dozens of reform-minded political parties, women’s organizations, and NGOs have welcomed the recommendations, joined a National Coalition to Reform the Legal Framework Governing the Electoral Process, and begun grassroots and online campaigns to rally support for the changes.

The NHCR, working in cooperation with the National Democratic Institute (NDI), last year launched a nationwide campaign for electoral reform in Jordan.  The current law, amended in 1993, is seen as favoring elite and tribal candidates over political party candidates and thus is considered an obstacle to political pluralism.   The campaign began by organizing a series of forums and workshops in the capital and Jordan’s larger cities discussing amendments needed to guarantee free and fair elections that would meet international standards as well as Jordanians’ aspirations for a parliament that is representative and able perform its legislative and oversight roles.

The NHCR initiative was not the first of its kind.  Civil society organizations and think tanks had sponsored similar initiatives in previous years, with active participation from political parties and groupings as well as women’s organizations.  The timing of the 2009 initiative was significant in that it came shortly before King Abdullah II dissolved the 15th Lower House of Parliament in the middle of its constitutional term and called for early elections according to a new elections law.

A series of dialogues held by the NCHR and the National Coalition ended with a set of recommendations which together form a comprehensive framework for reforming electoral legislation, and, if enacted, would provide for free and fair elections.  The recommendations call for a mixed electoral system to replace the one man/one vote system adopted in 1993.  The proposed mixed system would give Jordanians two votes: one for a candidate at the district level and one for a list at the national level.  The recommendations also include redistributing seats and redrawing districts to enhance equality.  They recommend that the quota for women be increased and that each governorate have at least one seat set aside for women.

The proposed amendments included establishing an independent national commission to manage and supervise the elections instead of the ministry of interior, as is presently the case.  They recommend regulating campaign spending and criminalizing the bussing of voters en masse and the buying and selling of votes.   Other recommendations include, inter alia, that the voting age be lowered, Jordanian expatriates be given full suffrage, media coverage of the elections be balanced, and civil society be given a watchdog role.  

Contrary to the enthusiasm of civil society, traditional Jordanian political elites have been decidedly tepid in their reaction to the NCHR-National Coalition recommendations, preferring to keep the current one-vote system and rejecting proportional representation and redistricting.  The government, meanwhile, has remained silent on the proposed changes and—while promising to study and take them seriously—has avoided making any kind of commitment to enact them.  In particular, the government has welcomed the proposed increased quota for women and promised to make the electoral process fairer and more transparent, while ignoring recommendations that would fundamentally change the rules of the game, namely the distribution of seats and redrawing of districts. 

Most observers following the electoral reform movement and the nation-wide debate over the upcoming elections are not optimistic about the chances of a breakthrough, citing hints from government sources that only marginal changes will be made to the electoral law.  Many are pessimistic about the ability of activists to exert sufficient domestic pressure to put real electoral reform at the top of the government agenda.  Neither the NCHR and the National Coalition, nor civil society and the political parties, have the ability to bring about tangible progress this way.

Enacting the recommendations would make a significant difference in encouraging citizens to take part in the elections.  A poll conducted by the Al-Quds Center for Political Studies in cooperation with NDI in 2009 showed that 24 percent of those who did not vote in 2007 stayed at home due to procedural considerations such as voter lists.  This subgroup amounts to a substantial 10 percent of the entire population. Increasing the women’s quota in the next parliament is also important; the Jordanian parliament has had no more than 6 percent women, well below the average of 9 percent in Arab countries and almost 20 percent internationally (the level Jordanian women are demanding).

Even if some of the procedural and quota recommendations be accepted, they will not achieve the sort of reform most Jordanians want.  It has been said that the main reason for dissolving the last parliament was its poor performance in legislation and oversight; most of its members were using their positions to obtain personal favors for their supporters and relatives at a heavy cost to the state treasury.  If the 2010 elections are run according to the same law and roughly the same mechanisms, we can expect to see more of the same, even if some of the names and faces change.

Oraib al-Rantawi is a Jordanian writer and analyst, and director of the Al-Quds Center for Political Studies.  Paul Wulfsberg translated this article from Arabic.