Q&A: Jordan election

Image source, Reuters
Image caption,
Election hoarding in Amman, Jordan

Jordan holds early parliamentary elections on Wednesday. Although the turmoil of the Arab Spring has largely passed the country by, last year saw steadily mounting public discontent with economic conditions and limits on democracy.

In November this culminated in clashes with security forces over fuel price rises, leaving three people dead.

Why has parliament been dissolved two years ahead of schedule?

The government hopes the new parliament will have a more convincing mandate to push through unpopular austerity measures at the behest of the International Monetary Fund, and has reformed some aspects of the electoral law to that end.

What are the main changes to the electoral system?

Jordan has a population of about 6.8 million people, with 3.1 million entitled to vote. The government says more than 2.27 million have registered to do so.

Previously, almost all seats in the lower house were elected from constituencies on a first-past-the-post system, with 12 seats reserved for religious and ethnic minorities and 12 for women.

Now 27 seats in the 150-seat parliament will be chosen through proportional representation on nationwide party lists, and the women's quota has been increased to 15.

In addition, the government set up an Independent Electoral Commission to deal with complaints of fraud.

Has the opposition welcomed this as a step towards democracy?

Opposition groups are not very impressed. Their main complaint is that 108 seats will still be chosen from constituencies, which are still skewed to the advantage of Jordan's rural and small-town East Bank population.

People of West Bank Palestinian origin are concentrated in the cities and more inclined to vote for the opposition candidates, including the Muslim Brotherhood-affiliated Islamic Action Front. They complain that the constituency system deliberately under-represents them.

As in previous elections, most of the 1,500 candidates are nominally independent but tend to be socially-conservative government loyalists. Their campaign material is long on family heritage - important in a traditional society like Jordan - and short on campaign pledges.

The opposition therefore sees little chance of the new parliament differing significantly from its predecessors.

Is the opposition standing in the election?

A total of 61 party lists will compete for the 27 non-constituency seats, but the Islamic Action Front has announced that it will boycott the polls - as it did in 2010 - in protest at the gerrymandered constituency system.

As the Front is by far the most significant party in the country, this seriously undermines the credibility of the incoming parliament. The party lists are dominated by East-Bank Jordanians.

Other opposition groups, most notably the National Reform Front of former Prime Minister Ahmed Obeidat, have joined the boycott.

Some Islamists will nonetheless stand as independents, and small left-wing and nationalist parties are putting up a joint list.

What do the opposition want from electoral reform?

Opposition groups want a parliament that is not only representative of the popular will but also has real power.

At present the elected Chamber of Deputies can initiate legislation, but this still has to pass through the senate and government, which are both appointed by the King. Critics would like the King to transfer some of his powers to parliament.

How has the government reacted?

Prime Minister Abdullah Ensour, a reformer, told reporters last week that King Abdullah will begin the process of gradually transferring his powers in the course of the incoming parliament, but gave no further details.

King Abdullah himself issued a statement earlier this month pledging to pilot a "parliamentary government system" after the elections in which the prime minister would be chosen "in consultation" with parliamentary groups and expected to command a parliamentary majority.

The opposition sees this as both too vague and too slow, although talks between the government and non-Islamist opposition groups are likely to continue after the election.

Does the Independent Electoral Commission make a difference?

Commission Chairman Abdullah al-Khateeb enjoys a reputation for honesty. The commission is investigating a number of claims of electoral fraud, and has launched a campaign to encourage the public to vote.

Mr Khateeb has invited international observers to monitor the election, and enlisted clerics to issue bans on vote-buying.

Most Jordanian analysts think this is unlikely to make much of a difference to turnout, given the scale of the boycott. Turnout in 2010 was 53 per cent - down from a meagre 54 per cent in 2007, when the Islamic Action Front last stood.

Has the election campaign had much media impact?

Campaigning takes place mainly through posters and street stands rather than in the broadcast and print media.

Opposition party lists have taken to Facebook to get their message across to young voters this time, as Jordan has relatively high social-media penetration - there are more than 2.5 million Facebook users, according to the www.checkfacebook.com website, of whom over one million are aged between 18 and 24.

Twitter is less popular, with about 60,000 users, the Jordan Times reports.

The election result alone will indicate whether the Facebook campaign was able to galvanize young people into going to the polls rather than simply commenting online.

What impact will the new parliament have?

Parliament will have to push through the IMF's latest demands, including a cut in power subsidies and public-sector jobs. This will hit the public hard, including the monarchy's traditional supporters, and a compliant parliament elected on a low turnout will not enhance the government's authority.

Opposition parties are likely to continue their anti-government campaigning on the streets as they did last year, which means an increased probability of clashes with the security forces.

Pressure on the government to speed up democratic reform will grow, reducing the likelihood of the incoming parliament making it to the end of its four-year term.

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