Q&A: Jordan election

Image caption,
Woman walking past election campaign posters in the Jordanian capital Amman

Jordanians vote for a new lower house of parliament in early elections on Tuesday, 9 November, amid widespread concern about the economy and a boycott by the country's main opposition group.

As a result of the boycott, pro-government tribal candidates are expected to make nearly a clean sweep, prompting fears that the authorities will face little opposition in the new house.

What is at stake?

At stake are the 120 seats in the House of Deputies (Majlis al-Nuwwab), the lower house of the National Assembly (Majlis al-Umma). The upper house, the House of Notables, is appointed wholly by the king, Abdullah II.

While parliament has some influence on legislation, the king maintains a large degree of control over government. Most laws are in practice drafted by the government, and MPs have to muster a two-thirds majority to overrule a royal veto of any bill passed by the upper house of parliament.

How does the system work?

Image caption,
King Abdullah dissolved parliament early without giving a reason

Under the electoral system, Jordan's 45 constituencies, or "electoral zones", are represented by several members of parliament, but voters can choose only one candidate.

Each zone is sub-divided into the same number of non-geographic, or "virtual", sub-districts as it has seats. Candidates stand in one of the sub-districts, but voters can choose to give their vote to any of the candidates standing in their zone.

A candidate who wins a plurality of votes in his or her sub-district is elected.

Twelve seats are reserved for women, elected on a countrywide basis. A further nine are reserved for Christians and three more for the Circassian, or Cherkess, minority

Why are the elections being held early?

In November 2009, King Abdullah dissolved the previous parliament, elected in 2007, only halfway through its four-year term.

No official reason was given for the move, but in the run-up to dissolution, parliament had been widely criticised for being ineffective and its members of being too focused on local interests. The king's move was met with little outcry.

A new election was to have been held within months, but the king postponed it to November 2010 to allow a new electoral law to be drafted.

Polling day is timed to coincide with the fifth anniversary of the 2005 Amman suicide attacks, which were claimed by al-Qaeda and killed 60 people.

Who can vote?

All Jordanians above the age of 18 are eligible to vote. The Interior Ministry says more than 2.6 million Jordanians have registered for the election out of a population of 6.3 million.

Who is taking part?

A total of 763 candidates, 134 of them women, are standing. Nearly all candidates are independents with strong links to Jordan's powerful indigenous tribes, which are usually strongly supportive of the king.

In September, the Islamic Action Front (IAF), a relatively moderate Islamist alliance and Jordan's most organised political group, announced it was boycotting the vote in protest at the new electoral law. A small number of Islamists are standing as independents in defiance of the boycott.

The IAF is strongly critical of Israel, but generally rejects militant forms of Islamism and seeks democratic reform through peaceful means. The authorities are wary of any increase in the Islamists' strength, and see them as a threat to Jordan's pro-Western orientation.

In the 1990s the IAF held nearly half of the 110 seats in parliament, but won only six in the last election.

Will the vote be fair?

Prime Minister Samir Rifai says the government is "committed to holding transparent elections in line with the law".

However, critics argue that Jordan's electoral system favours sparsely-populated rural areas over urban areas in the allocation of seats.

The countryside is dominated by Jordanian tribes and Bedouin, who are loyal to the king, while the towns are dominated by the country's large population of Palestinian refugees, who tend to favour Islamist candidates.

In October, a report by the campaign group Human Rights Watch accused Jordan of suppressing political opposition, citing the arrest of several Islamist and pro-democracy activists.

Why is the new electoral law controversial?

Reformists and Islamists say the new law introduced in May 2010 does nothing to make the electoral system fairer. It raised the number of MPs from 110 to 120, introduced the "virtual" sub-districts and doubled the number of seats guaranteed to women, from six to 12.

While it did hand some of the new seats to towns, the IAF and pro-reform campaigners says even more were allocated to rural areas, in fact reinforcing their over-representation.

What are the main issues?

In addition to the opposition boycott, anxiety about the poor state of the economy is foremost in voters' minds. Jordan faces a record budget deficit of US $2bn and its debt hit US $11bn in August, close to 60% of GDP. Unemployment is running at 13%.

The government has promised to halve the deficit in a year, but is reluctant to cut the pay and pensions of Jordan's powerful public sector workers, a bastion of support for the king.

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