By Arab News
By Osama Al Sharif
Last week’s decision by Jordan’s Muslim Brotherhood and its political arm, the Islamic Action Front (IAF), to boycott upcoming parliamentary elections is perceived as a setback to official attempts to conclude a series of political reforms, which began last year. The Islamist party is not alone. They were joined by most opposition parties and representatives of hirak, or popular protests, which have been calling for wide ranging reforms during the last 16 months. The decision was taken after Parliament approved a new election law that gives voters two ballots, one for a national list and another for candidates from local districts.
Critics say the new law varies little from the controversial single vote system, which has been in use since the early 1990s. The opposition wanted a law that gives voters multiple ballots in a mixed system that includes a national list. Reforming the law was one of the main conditions set by the Islamists to ensure their participation in elections. They boycotted the 2010 polls, which produced what many believe is a docile and pro-government legislature.
So far the government has not set an official date for the new elections. But King Abdallah has declared, on more than one occasion, that the elections will be held before the end of this year. Some observers believe there is simply not enough time to prepare for the elections in the remaining months and Prime Minister Dr. Fayez Tarawneh has said that the newly formed Independent Election Commission (IEC) is the only party responsible for setting an election date.
There is a sense of frustration and uncertainty engulfing the political stage in Jordan. Political columnists have accused the government of backtracking on reforms, which saw one-third of the constitution’s articles amended last year. The amendments introduced new conditions for appointing governments and disbanding Parliament, but they fell short of a major popular demand which is to allow voters to directly elect governments. The king has said that in the near future Jordan will see its first parliamentary government.
Historically and since the resumption of democratic life in Jordan in 1989, successive governments have sought to limit the influence of Jordan’s Islamists in the Lower House through the single vote system. While rejecting the law, the Islamists participated in few elections and boycotted others. But even when they did participate, such as in 2007, the government was accused of electoral fraud.
Until the breakout of popular protests in Tunisia and Egypt, the government — and the regime— showed little interest in bringing the Islamists on board. But after the Arab Spring there was a change of policy. As Islamists rose to power in most Arab Spring countries, Jordan’s Islamists joined street protests and upped their rhetoric. But they rejected extreme anti-regime slogans. They said they only wanted to reform the political system. One of their main demands was the cancellation of the single vote law.
Critics of the single vote law are not limited to Islamists. Nationalist and leftist parties have denounced it as well; saying that it has fragmented constituencies and encouraged tribalism. Most Jordanians agree that the current Parliament, which is described as weak, marginal and submissive, is a direct product of the single-vote system.
A National Dialogue Committee, representing a wide range of Jordanians, has recommended last year a proportional system with multiple ballots in enlarged districts. When the draft law was written by the government of former Prime Minister Marouf Al Bakhit it allotted three votes at the level of the district and one for the national list. By the time his successor, Awn Al Khasawneh, submitted the draft law to the Lower House the three ballots were reduced to two. But when the conservative government of Fayez Tarwaneh took over two months ago the Lower House knocked off another ballot, at the level of the district; limiting it to one. This has enraged the public to the extent that the king had to intervene and asked the government to carry out additional amendments so that law can become more representative. The government and Parliament kept the single vote, per district, but increased the number of seats for the national list from 17 to 27, in what was seen as a gesture toward the Islamists.
This has not satisfied the Islamists or other opposition parties. They claim the new law is a variation of the single-vote system and will only produce a Lower House that is not very different from the current one. Critics of the Islamists believe they are using regional events to blackmail the government. Others believe their influence and power are greatly exaggerated and say reform should not be directed by one political group. One writer said the Islamists are afraid to be tested at the polls.
Now that the Islamists have made their decision and the government is defending the new law, a political impasse has been created. After few weeks of calm, popular protests have now resumed. It is difficult to see the usefulness of holding a new election if most political parties are boycotting it. It is also difficult to understand why successive governments have chosen to ignore public demands that the law undergoes a major overhaul.
Speaker of the Upper House, Taher Al Masri, has chosen to go abroad as the Senate debated the law. Al Masri headed the National Dialogue Committee which had recommended a more liberal legislation last year. Underlying his discontent with political reforms in Jordan, former Deputy Prime Minister Dr. Marwan Muasher wrote an article in a local daily this week in which he said there was “an adolescent handling of political issues at the level of the state.” His harsh criticisms of royal advisers were publicized in local news sites.
Jordan has come full circle since the start of public protests calling for reforms. The main hurdle of changing the election law has not been cleared. Amid economic hardships and political uncertainties Jordanians are growing weary and anxious.
– Osama Al Sharif is a journalist and political commentator based in Amman. Email: [email protected]