Al-Arab Al-Youm – Ibrahim Qbeilat and Emad Al-Rawashdeh
It was simply a coincidence that brought together the writers of this report with Akram, in his 30s, who had received an offer of over JD 40,000 to buy votes for a candidate running in Amman Third District in the November 2010 parliamentary election.
This is where our investigation into what is known as “election money” started.
Akram was clearly stressed-out. His features and movements betrayed his false composure after he agreed to receive us. The offer surpassed all his expectations, though he quickly found out that “if the deal is revealed, he will be thrown behind bars” for bringing voters in return for money.
To verify the story, we taped Akram’s communication with the person who offered to pay him JD 100 per vote. The conversation showed that the deal is concluded through a series of intermediaries, ending in the hand of one broker, who is, in most cases, a member of the candidate’s support committee. Since the main objective of this investigation is to reach the farthest link in this chain, and to at least meet the candidate or his main broker, the authors agreed with Akram to go all the way.
Disguised as brokers, the authors met with the main broker who is member of the support committee for the most prominent candidate in the Amman Third District. Using a secret camera, they recorded everything. The key broker thinks that his candidate has no chance of winning unless he buys at least 1000 votes, some of which can be guaranteed for JD125 each. From the total amount per vote, JD75 goes to the authors of this report and the rest to the voter, who will take a “solemn oath on the Quran, pledging to vote for the candidate, as a condition”.
Vote Buyers and Sellers are Safe from Serious Penalties.
According to videotaped to tape-recorded interviews of voters seeking to sell their votes and intermediaries from the Amman Second and Third Districts, as well as Karak and Madaba, it was evident that the first and last party responsible for the vote the buying/selling operation is the broker. The candidate is keen to remain behind the scenes. The investigators could have gone all the way in concluding buying and selling deals with all these parties, but professional ethics and legal concerns were key reasons as to why we pulled out at the last moment.
In what looks like a vicious circle, the Temporary Election Law of 2010 includes severe penalties to candidates. Hence, they remain behind the scene while brokers, who are not clearly recognized by the law as offenders, implement the scheme. Despite this legal loophole, eight brokers were referred to court while one candidate was being interrogated in the run up to the election, according to a government spokesperson.
The seven-year penalty stipulated in article (46 A) is implemented in accordance with article (20 A) on the “candidate”, without any mention of the brokers.
When told about the absence of a clear text condemning the broker, Election spokesman Sameeh Al-Ma’aytah sounded stunned. Yet he quickly responded by saying that “the priority is to refer suspects to the judiciary, and not to prove the validity of the penalty.”
Dr. Ali Dabbas, Assistant Commissioner General for the National Center for Human Rights, who did intensive research on the Election Law, stated that brokers could be taken to court. “Even if the Law is void of any text regarding the broker, the general principles in the Penal Code condemn him as an accomplice in a crime, and the penalty could reach two thirds of the original perpetrator’s penalty.” However, he emphasized the need to have a clear text to curb this “phenomenon”.
The Vote-Buying Crime Thrives on the Difficulty of Proving it
In this context, Mr. Ma’aytah, said that “interrogators are questioning a number of brokers, but only a small number is being referred to court due to lack of evidence.” He added: “We face a real problem in presenting legal evidence for vote-buying.”
“Normally, laws do not provide for procedural mechanisms to reveal a specific crime. Hence, the issue is restricted to the presence of material and moral evidence of the crime under investigation. Providing evidence and information is responsibility that must be borne by the prosecutor general, which ranges from the Mukhtar (community leader) to the administrative ruler,” according to attorney Muhammad Al-Sbaihi.
Mr. Yusef Al-Bustanji, former member of parliament, who did not run in the 2010 election, says the government is not serious in tracking down vote-buyers. He said the government is capable of deploying security personnel, in civilian clothes, among the candidates and across election centers, to track-down brokers and provide material evidence.
What is New in the 2010 Elections: Women and Girls Practicing Brokerage
A list containing 180 names and national numbers in Amman First District is kept by Hana’a, a woman in her thirties, waiting for a candidate who will pay more. When we met her, disguised as representatives of one of the candidates in the same district, we argued about the reliability and credibility of names on her list. Her response was monotonous. “Hand me the money and I will take you to them one by one, and they will take an oath before you to vote for the candidate you work for.”
Hana’a asked for JD10 per voter in the video-taped interview, and a similar amount for herself — thus earning a total of JD1800. She asked the amount be paid in advance, before meeting prospective voters. The writers taped three other recordings with women brokers, all carrying civil status identity cards of prospective voters, waiting for candidate who pays them the most.
The investigation showed that the voting guarantee is the same: An oath taken by the voter on the Quran in front of the candidate’s representatives.
Criminalizing Vote-Sellers: Vagueness in the Text of the Law
In recorded meetings with a number of voters, more than half of them said they wanted to sell their votes to the highest bidder, within a limit ranging from JD50 to JD200. A girl in her thirties, registered in Madaba, was trying to market the ID cards of her seven family members, each for JD 100. When we contacted her in a recorded telephone conversation, through a girl who helped us by posing as a broker, the girl sounded happy when we expressed our readiness to pay the amount she had requested.
Another voter in his twenties, registered in Balqa’ First District, assured us he was willing to sell his vote for JD70. “The candidate is all talk before the elections, and you do not see his face after the elections.” This is how the young man justifies selling his vote, refusing all other considerations. He adds: “half of the voters buy and sell. In addition, many representatives only have their own personal interests in mind when they approach us.”
According to a survey of the new election law run by the Center for Strategic Studies at the University of Jordan, 10% of the respondents said they had received financial offers from a candidate or one of his supporters. “The ratio is very high and has a strong influence on the form and quality of the parliament elected,” according to the Center’s report..
“As is the case with the broker, the text of the law are not strict with the vote-seller either,” according to attorney Muhammad Al-Sbaihi. Anyone requesting gifts, donations or assistance, or promises of the same from any candidate, according to the text of paragraph (B) of article 20, shall be penalized with “imprisonment for a minimum period of three months, and a maximum period of one year, or a minimum fine of JD200 and a maximum fine of JD500, or both penalties,” according to article (44). This article indicates, among other things, and according to Al-Sbaihi, that it is “easy for the vote-seller to deny his request for money”.
The article did not clearly say: “Whoever takes money” but “whoever requests money.”
Election Money Results in a Tarnished Parliament: The 2007 Elections as an Example
The “election money” phenomenon emerged during the 2007 parliamentary election, according to Dr. Ali Al-Dabbas, Assistant General Commissioner of the National Human Rights Center. The Center’s report on those elections asserts “the spread of using money to buy votes in wholesale, and the absence of government measures to deter and combat this serious phenomenon, which has negatively influenced the voter’s will and the integrity and credibility of the election process.”
The former representative and member of the Financial Committee in the previous House of Representatives, Yusef Al-Bustanji, emphasizes that “election money has had a damaging effect on the parliament he was a member of, and has created a group of financially influential people who exhibited a weakness in dealing with laws and regulations.”
He added that “some of them did not discuss any draft law during the two years, which was the duration of the parliament, and more than 14 contractors and 15 businessmen became members of that parliament, forming a pressure tool by attempting to amend laws to promote their financial interests.”
According to an investigation carried out by the authors in the backgrounds of the members of the fifteenth Council members, three fourths of them do not have any political experience, while more than one quarter were businessmen. What is noteworthy is that about four of them do not have any qualifications, or did not complete the preparatory level.
The lack of political experience for most of the former Council members was evident in a number of legislative turning-points in its life. This is evident, according to Mr. Al-Bustanji, in discussing the temporary Unified Tax Law which was approved after the Parliament was dissolved.
According to the poll, “A majority of the public opinion agreed (by over three quarters of the respondents) on six factors that played a basic role in the former Council, foremost of which was the member realizing personal gains at the rate of 79%.”
The weakness of the representative performance cast a shadow of despair on the citizen’s position vis-à-vis the legislative life in the country, without restricting the issue to the former Council, according to what can be concluded from the studies center survey. “More than 60% of the respondents asserted that they never followed up on the Council activities; a result that is in line with another regarding evaluating the performance of the 14th Council,” according to the survey.
Buying Votes: The Debate over the Reasons and the Solutions
In order to treat the phenomenon of “election money,” it would have been possible to develop the election law, according to attorney Muhammad Al-Sbaihi. He proposes “assigning a higher ceiling for the candidate’s budget, thus limiting their ability to utilize money in their campaigns.”
Others see that the treatment lies where the ailment started; at the Election Law in specific. The Assistant General Commissioner for the National Center for Human Rights, Dr. Ali Al-Dabbas states that “the Law spreads a feeling of uselessness in practicing the right to vote and the selection of candidates, which encourages selling votes…”. The solution, he says, lies in amending “the law through introducing partisan lists which accentuates the importance of the election process.”
Sameeh Al-Ma’aytah, the election’s spokesman, warned of “exaggeration” in projecting the volume of the vote-buying phenomenon and connecting it to the Election Law. He believes that “Jordan never knew the party lists throughout its history, but the political money did not appear until lately, and buying votes in governorates and villages does not represent a phenomenon, due to tribal consensus, which spares the candidate such behavior. There are certain classes that are not politically interested in the elections, and they are the ones who sell their votes, due to the lack of value in that vote, according to them.”
In return, the authors of this investigation had a recorded meeting with a voter in Karak third district. He concludes from his personal experience that “the prevailing belief among brokers is that buying the votes of one family in favor of a candidate will push the relatives and the extended family to vote for him without payment.”
The young man recalls how a broker offered his family to sell their vote against a few thousand Dinars, hoping to bring on board the rest of the relatives. But his refused, “to preserve the freedom and dignity” of the voters in the family.”
In a report on political corruption for the year 2004, issued by Transparency International, the document devoted a whole chapter for buying votes. The report was the conclusion of research and opinion polls in three developing countries. It pointed out that “buying votes flourishes when parties are weak, opening the scope for increasing individual relation between the candidate and the voter, instead of institutional and partisan relations.”
This report was completed with the support of Arab Reporters for Investigative Journalism (ARIJ) and under the supervision Amer Al-Kahki.