Jordan’s parliamentary elections, held on September 20, ushered in its eighteenth parliament, but did not—nor were they expected to—change the country’s political balance of power. As with the outgoing parliament, the new one will be dominated by a large number of small, tribe-based, royalist parties whose electoral base rarely extends beyond a single province. However, the Muslim Brotherhood’s participation after boycotting two successive elections, and their direct competition with regime-aligned Islamists, made the competition more interesting.
The election results showed two key outcomes. One was that parliament, as expected, emerged fragmented, although the Brotherhood’s Islamic Action Front (IAF) alliance was able to leverage its organizational strength to win a modest plurality. The other was that participation correlated directly with the bias in seat allocations. As in all previous elections, seats were allocated to favor rural areas dominated by East Bank tribes, and though the national participation rate was 37 percent, it was much higher in rural areas.
The manner in which the Brotherhood’s IAF won its plurality shows that its victory came not from overwhelming support but because of its strong organization in a weak field. The Brotherhood has always been viewed as more popular among Jordanians of Palestinian origin, who especially predominate in the urban areas of Amman, Irbid, and Zarqa. Its standing in the country has taken an additional beating in recent years because of a strong reaction against the Muslim Brotherhood’s role in Egypt and Syria. Thus, for this election, it downplayed Islamist slogans and formed a broad alliance called the National Alliance for Reform, which included not only non-Islamist tribal candidates but also non-Muslims (Christians running for Christian-reserved seats).
The IAF claimed that its “Reform” coalition won fifteen seats, of which ten went to IAF members. This is more than any other list, but this success should be viewed in light of the fact that it only won 11.6 percent of the vote in the 11 districts in which it competed, and that it did not register in provinces where it clearly would have performed poorly. The IAF’s best result was in Amman Three, where it won 19.7 percent, and its worst result was in Irbid Four, where it received 4.0 percent.
The IAF’s success was also due to fragmentation of the vote: no competing list had a support base that extended beyond a single district or province. Amman, which contains 38 percent of Jordan’s citizens but less than a quarter of parliament’s seats (29 out of 130), is the IAF’s strongest electoral base. And strict district proportion laws required a party to score exceptionally well to get more than one seat in a district. Thus the IAF Reform alliance won seven seats, including the two of the three reserved for Circassians or Chechens, and it was the only list which won at least one seat in each of Amman’s five districts, although it failed to come in first place anywhere.
Political fragmentation ruled the day. The IAF’s strongest candidate in Amman, Salih Abd al-Karim al-Armouti, obtained 8,076 votes out of 46,507 total votes in Amman Three, which had 242,198 registered voters. Armuti had more votes than any candidate in Amman Three, but the IAF still lost overall to the secularist Maan list, which also won two seats in that district. The strongest result by any list in Amman was in its fourth district, where the Quds al-Sharif (Holy Jerusalem) list obtained 20,148 out of 74,262 votes cast. The IAF came in third there with 9,155 votes. Twenty-one separate factions divided Amman’s 29 seats between them, as the IAF and Maan were the only lists to win more than a single seat.
The IAF’s results in Zarqa, traditionally thought of as an Islamist stronghold, were even less impressive. In Zarqa’s first district, the IAF’s top candidate came in second to Muhammad Nuh al-Qada, a celebrity preacher and former Waqf minister who styles himself “a patriotic Islamist.” In Zarqa’s second district the IAF list failed to win a seat entirely, coming in sixth out of nine lists. They did win Zarqa’s women-reserved seat, was well as its Circassian/Chechen seat, giving them three of Zarqa’s fourteen seats. The Zarqa One results also show the fragmentation of the vote. Qada’s 14,562 votes were the most obtained by any candidate across the country, yet they were only a fraction of the 102,944 total votes for the district, out of 449,753 registered voters. The IAF’s best candidate, Saud Salim Abu Mahfuz, received 11,512 votes, also in Zarqa One. The IAF’s Reform list actually came in third in the district behind Qada’s Yaqin list and the Aqsa List, a Palestinian nationalist faction with 17,830 votes.
Yet results for regime-aligned Islamists who had split from the Brotherhood were even weaker. The IAF had two regime-aligned Islamist competitors, the Muslim Center Party (MCP) and a more recent splinter known popularly as Zamzam. At the founding of new Muslim Brotherhood Society (MBS), associated with Zamzam, Abdul Majid al-Thneibat, the splinter’s leader, famously declared “we are part of this regime.” The two ran on some joint and some separate lists, and Thneibat’s MBS only had one winning Islamist candidate, in Aqaba. Zamzam ran under its own name only in Irbid, and failed to win a single seat—while it has claimed its list won five total, they appear to have all been its non-Islamist, tribal allies. The MCP, which ran fourteen lists, claims to have won seven seats, including both party members and tribal allies, but the fact that none campaigned on their association with the MCP makes the extent of its public support unclear.
While candidates drawing on tribal support received overwhelming majorities everywhere, no national-level tribalist or royalist blocs emerged. Thus outgoing Speaker of the House Atef al-Tarawneh unsurprisingly came in first in Karak, but he won with 12,054 votes out of 103,451 votes cast. His Watan list came in second nationwide with six seats, but won four of them in Karak, and even there, in his base, won just 19.1 percent of the vote. Former Speaker Abdul Karim al-Dughmi, a rival of Tarawneh who is expected to challenge him to lead the next parliament, likewise came in first in his home province of Mafraq. But Dughmi won with 8,844 votes out of 50,391, his Suqour list obtaining 19.6 percent of the total vote. And the two seats Suqour won in Mafraq (one of them for the women’s quota) were the only seats it won nationwide.
The National Union Party, the largest tribalist/royalist faction in the outgoing parliament, won just three seats—although its leader, Mohammad al-Khashman, suggested his allies (some running independently) brought this total to seven. Its strongest candidate, a Christian, won 8,352 votes of 49,798 votes in Irbid Three. The party’s campaign was surely not helped by Khashman’s problems with a long cloud of corruption. The secularist Maan’s winning of two seats has gathered some attention, but it won both of them in Amman Three, an unrepresentative area which is both upscale and disproportionately Christian, and one of Maan’s two winners was a Christian.
With a national participation rate of 37 percent, the notable trend in the election was the disparity in participation rates across the country, correlating directly with overrepresentation in parliament. The three Bedouin districts, which are the most overrepresented in seat allocation, had the highest participation rates, all over 60 percent. Karak had the highest non-Bedouin voting rate at 62 percent, and the other rural provinces were all in the 40–60 percent range. Amman and Zarqa are the most underrepresented, and few voted—the worst results for each city were in Amman Three (19.2 percent) and in Zarqa One (22.9 percent). Strong results in the cities by non-tribal lists—including the secularist Maan and the Islamists—should be read bearing in mind that few people voted in these districts.
Among women candidates, the main surprise was that in Karak two women won competitively beyond the quota. The election law reserved 15 seats for women, and in most cases women on competing lists were competing with one another, rather than with male candidates, for those seats. But five women won competitively nationwide, meaning that 20 of the new parliament’s 130 MPs are women.
The resulting parliament is thus likely to replicate the last one—dominated by rural candidates whose support base is primarily tribal, fragmented into a large number of small factions focused on defending patronage interests rather than promoting a nationwide policy agenda. It is not likely to be a productive parliament.
Kirk H. Sowell is the principal of Utica Risk Services, a Middle East-focused political risk firm.