Municipal and Parliamentary Elections in Jordan: Cosmetic Reforms with little impact on political status quo
Governance – Despite repeated pledges from the highest authorities in Jordan to introduce overdue democratic reforms, the political process in the Kingdom has been at an impasse for the last decade. The uprisings of the “Arab Spring” and its aftermath brought few “cosmetic” changes into effect. However, it did not amount to a significant progress towards developing the political system into a more pluralistic and inclusive exercise in line with the principles enshrined in the country’s constitution.
Governments in Jordan are still being appointed by the Royal Court, while the House of Representatives, which is supposed to represent the people, gets elected under laws drafted by the appointed executive branch. As a result, most members of parliament tend to support rather than challenge the government, leaving the majority of people disillusioned over the whole electoral exercise. Current election laws limit the opposition parties’ chances of having a proportionate parliamentary representation, which in turn compels them to boycott the elections altogether. The status quo guarantees that “loyalist” parties and independents dominate parliament.
Municipal elections that took place last summer, was not much better off than parliamentary elections. Voters in the Amman Municipality, who constitute nearly half of the kingdom’s 7 million population, were allowed to elect only two-thirds of the the capital city’s municipal council members, in accordance with the law. The remaining third were appointed by the government. The mayor of Amman who enjoys vast authority over the majority of the powers vested in the Council, was also appointed by the government.
The foregoing circumstances were a factor in the low voter turnout in Amman municipal elections. According to official figures, voter turnout did not exceed 10% of eligible voters of a total of about 2.35 million eligible voters for whom the government made available 7950 ballot boxes in 384 districts in various municipalities and provinces in the Kingdom to cast their ballots. However, despite extensive media campaigns to encourage higher voter turnout, the percentage of the vote did not exceed 30% of those eligible to vote on the national level. The turnout in the capital recorded the lowest voting rates in the kingdom on record.
The new City Council of Greater Amman Municipality consists of 42 members, 28 of whom were elected to represent 22 districts plus six seats reserved to election women according to a quota system. The rest of the council members and the Mayor are appointed by the executive branch. The government chose former minister Akel Biltaji as Mayor of Amman, without consulting the members of the council or any other party outside the government.
The municipal election took place despite a boycott by the opposition parties, most notably the Islamic movement (the Muslim Brotherhood), which justified its decision by the “lack of the government’s political will to conduct fair and expressive elections that translate the Jordanian people’s wishes, whether in local elections or parliamentary elections,” according to Zaki Bani Rusheid, deputy spiritual leader of the Muslim Brotherhood.
Nabil Kofahi, one of the Muslim Brotherhood’s leaders, withdrew his candidacy at the last minute “for health reasons” after he had announced his candidacy for mayor of the Greater Irbid Municipality in northern Jordan. Koufahi’s decision to run was in violation of the Brotherhood’s unanimous decision to boycott the poll. Bani Rusheid said that “evidently, Koufahi’s candidacy was a clear violation of the Islamic movement’s decision,” adding that this electoral law “was passed by the House of Representatives without our participation. If there was a real will to change the law, we would have participated in the process to change it through the House of Representatives.”
Hussein Al-Majali, the Minister of Interior and Municipal affairs, criticized the Brotherhood’s decision to boycott the elections and said in a press conference that the Islamic movement would have served itself better had it not boycotted the elections.
Liberal opposition MP Jamil Nimri said the government “missed an invaluable opportunity to accomplish a major reform step” by amending the municipalities law towards a more proportionate representation” for all municipalities and their citizens, explaining that the Amman and Aqaba provinces “are excluded from electing their Mayors and part of the city council members, in addition to the lack of fairness in representation in some municipalities.”
Nimri added that the government of Prime Minister Abdullah Ensour “lacks the vision for proper local governance despite him (Ensour) having had heated arguments in favor of reform when he was member of parliament before being appointed as head of government . Nimri lamented that the prime minister ignored the municipal councils draft reform law “that we have been fighting fought, and which the (appointed) Upper House of Parliament aborted”. The number of government-appointed senators is half the number of elected members of the House of Representatives. Any dispute between the two houses over legislation is resolved by holding a joint session of the two houses. Laws state that in this case, a draft law would require the support of two-thirds of the joint session members.
Nimri wrote in an article that “there are ideas for serious reform regarding the municipalities law in general and the Greater Amman Municipality, but we have a government that, for administrative and nominal reason, decided to resort to the old election law… which has undermined most of the political reform project.”
Lawyer and human rights activist Omar Atout explained that one of the motives behind excluding the Greater Amman Municipality citizens from fully and directly electing their representatives was to guarantee control over the revenues of the capital city, which are the highest of any governorate in the country. “This is a clear disregard for the will of the people of Amman… the government wants to control [Amman’s]budget.” He considered that to be “a grave cause for financial and administrative corruption, away from any proper oversight or supervision.”
Atout also noted that municipalities law contradicts the constitution “that states that all Jordanians are equal before the law,” saying that “it is unacceptable to have municipalities that elect all of their representatives while the capital’s citizens elect only two thirds of their representative and are not allowed to elect their mayor.” He expressed regret that the law “treats Amman’s citizens as ineligible and unfit to elect their own city council members.”
Atout added that excluding Aqaba’s citizens from directly electing all members of their city council is another breach of the constitution. The government treats the city of Aqaba with special status as “a free economic zone … as if they’re saying that citizens of Aqaba are unqualified and incompetent to manage their own city.”
A human rights activist, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said the manner in which the Amman city council is being elected “creates the impression that the regime “nurtures the inequality between citizens from East Jordanian descent and citizens of Palestinian origin, to ensure its sole control on power.” He explained that this trend seems to be “part of an effort to pit people against each other and alerting them that Amman is inhabited by a majority of Jordanians of Palestinian [descent].”
However, the municipal elections held last summer had aspects that were received favorably such as exempting voters from the need to register before they cast their votes. Citizens were able to locate their polling station by texting their national number to a specified number and promptly receiving the details of the polling station and ballot box number based on the voter’s place of residency. The law states that all Jordanian citizens who completed 18 years of age sixty days before election date, have the right to vote.
Ahmed Jilani, a resident of the Hay Nazzal neighborhood in Amman, said he voted in municipal elections for the first time last year because of the media coverage and intense publicity that urged people to vote and because he wanted to support a particular candidate close to his family.
Gilani empahsised the importance of “neighborhood councils” that represent citizens in their respective areas, listen to their demands and their social needs, and affect a large number of people by building public facilities and services.
A group of 82 activists, including a number of MPs, public opinion leaders and journalists recently signed a petition addressed to the Prime Minister and Senate speaker calling for amending the Municipalities Law and related laws to reflect better representation of the citizens.
Their list of demands included the enactment of modern municipalities elections law that “allows [people] to run [for office] based on electoral lists competing on the premise of their platforms and vision to develop the municipal work,” in addition to “establishing neighborhood councils to ensure effective participation of a wider public base in the municipalities’ work”. The petitioners called for “emancipating the municipalities from the tutelage of the Ministry of Interior and Municipal Affairs and enabling them to receive their dues from the budget without having to plead for them from the central government.”
They also called for expanding the municipalities’ powers and independence and for the adoption of an administrative system that allows municipal councils to be held more accountable.
Tayseer Al-Kloub said he decided to cast his vote in the municipal elections in Qasabat Al-Salt, despite his reservations over the municipalities law. He believes that “local government affects people’s lives either way” whether municipal councils were all elected or only partly. He explained that the mayor “can operate within a limited scope of independence from the central government, but its an important margin that cannot be ignored.”
Al-Kloub said “I look at local government differently from the way I look at the overall political system.”
This story was produced as part of the Governance project, a reporting program in Jordan organised by the Thomson Reuters Foundation in partnership with Arab Reporters for Investigative Journalism”ARIJ”.