The Cautious Optimist’s Guide To Parliamentary Elections

Words: Naseem Tarawnah | Visual: Dimitri Zarzar

Whenever parliamentary election season arrives, it always feels like the circus has come to town. On the ground, the big tops go up and constituents fill the election tents to hear fiery speeches, enjoy the free catering, and show their underwhelming support for the candidate they’ve already decided on from the minute announcements were made.

Every election season comes with the usual fanfare and marketing ploys, mostly a visual bombardment of names and faces on banners that compete for space on traffic circles and light posts. Every election season feels like the show has already been choreographed, with improvised acts being as rare as Yahya Saud holding a press conference surrounded by a pile of voter national ID cards. The actors feel auditioned, their acts pre-determined, and their roles pre-ordained. But the reviews are almost always fantastic with any critiques brushed aside quickly. The State announces “unprecedented turnouts” or no substantial “irregularities”, and a narrative is established whereby the chosen representatives now represent the voice of the people.

The day after elections, the circus leaves town and is quickly replaced with a TV sitcom that runs for four years.

Like a bad re-run, we’ve gotten used to this show as well, with a Lower House cast that looks awfully familiar to the previous one. We could say this is the result of a one-man-one-vote electoral system that dominated the political culture and the very way we vote or think of voting – mostly for independent conservatives with the same last names, conservative candidates that barter services and favors for votes, or the filling of a quota seat. We could say this is the result of eligible voters not caring enough about parliament to go out and cast a ballot “whether out of belief in the ineffectiveness of this specific legislative body, or a disbelief in the authenticity of the whole endeavor. Whatever the case may be the results always look too familiar and low expectations or even suspicions by both those who voted and those that didn’t tend to be validated by parliamentary performance over the course of four years.

Whatever episodes we can recall from the four-year run tend to be the bad ones. Like, the time a shoe was removed for the purposes of an on-screen beating, or the time they went on national TV and took out their gun to threaten another guest,or the time one MP tried to shoot another with an AK-47, or the time they ate nuts during national budget discussions, or the time a woman in the chamber was told to sit down and shut up, or the time they failed to fight for a specific right that ended up making life difficult for people, or the many times they threatened a no-confidence vote by throwing up their arms in uproar only to side with management by week’s end, or – my personal favorites – the ones where they discuss consequential legislation or constitutional amendments without any public debate and pass it as quickly as a producer hoping no one in the audience caught the blooper. And all this unfolds under a body with a budget that keeps increasing*. And it goes on and on.

And just like a bad TV show, it’s usually on the air because just enough people are watching; just enough registered voters are participating. After all, this last Lower House – one of the worst, performance-wise, in recent history – was voted in by only one-third of eligible voters.

However, this year, enough noticeable changes have happened to the typical program to suggest we’ll be getting a different kind of show, just not necessarily a better one.

These changes are brought to you by another electoral law that looks theoretically different from its predecessors, the participation of parties/groups that have typically boycotted such as the now-fragmented Islamist movement, a constitutionally more effective Independent Election Commission (IEC) to oversee the vote, an economic situation that is perceived so poorly it might compel voters to head to the polls, and the ability to vote on election day without prior registration.

Governing all these new realities is the new election law.

To quickly sum up the most significant changes: the country moves from a one-man-one-vote system towards an open list system, whereby candidates are forced to run on a list (with a minimum of three people on it) rather than independently, and voters will get to cast a ballot for both the list and their preferred candidate/s within that list. Meanwhile, the governorates have been reorganized into districts, save for populated urban centers, heavily dominated tribal areas, and specific quotas. The underlying hope of this “revamp” – as declared by the State – is that candidates will run on political platforms and voters will vote with agendas in mind rather than for relatives.

So, in theory, whether we can expect more of the same or not will rely on: the quality and diversity of candidates running, a high voter turnout, and canceling the role of the intelligence services as the show’s traditional executive producer (because what happens behind the scenes is just as critical). If those three stars happen to align, we might see something a bit divergent from the ordinary. Admittedly, the empirical evidence suggests that the probability of all this happening is pretty slim.

The Trust Gap

How vital the Lower House is in the grand scheme of governance is debatable. This remains a country in which a single person holds executive command, with government policy operating under the umbrella of the security machinery that drives it all. While in theory the role of the Lower House has been to represent the voice of constituents, reality has consistently suggested that the Lower House has acted more as a first line of defense for the State, allowing it: a) protection from responsibility or accountability in public policy failure (because parliament voted for it, and people voted for those representatives), and b) a space in which limited critique can be aired, safely contained, and co-opted if need be, all of which to the State are preferable to popular protests and often useful in promoting the image of an open government. In other words, scapegoating and credibility is what the parliament means to the state. A new election law hasn’t changed that reality.

But what parliament means for society is really what matters here.

The role of Parliament can be shifted towards something substantial if the voting culture is changed. In that light, the new electoral law isn’t the radical shift needed or hoped for. Where some might see it a positive stepping-stone away from the one-man-one-vote system, others will believe this is yet another way to bring in the same “loyalist” candidates. If it is the latter – which it has historically been – then the impact on the voter-candidate relationship is set back, yet again. Trust and confidence in parliament and government as a whole is set back, yet again. And the voting culture is set back, yet again, giving us more of the same.

A recent poll by RASED finds that 75% of the previous Lower House plans to run in this election and while their ability to secure a seat again will rely on the voters, the same study found that only 31.5% of the interviewed 1,800 [eligible] voters plan to participate in the elections, with 39.5% saying they will boycott, and 29% being unsure. So far, it seems the same episode may be playing out again, with a minority of people set to vote for representatives whose work affects everyone and legitimizes the status quo.

The situation isn’t helped by public perceptions of parliament.

The percentage of respondents to a recent IRI study that described the economy as “good” went from 46% in 2015 to 29% this year. Those polled linked their perceptions to parliamentary performance, with 87% agreeing that Parliament “has not accomplished anything worthy of commendation,” and only 29% believing the legislative branch as a whole to be effective at all.

Meanwhile, 58% said they were completely unaware of the new election law or the role of the Independent Election Committee that was established to oversee the vote and, theoretically, lend it the credibility it so badly needs. In this poll, 57% said they are unlikely to vote, even though 69% said they care about political reforms to a large or moderate degree.

The less-than-independent University of Jordan’s Center for Strategic Study conducted a recent poll with more optimistic results: 70% of those surveyed believe the new election law will “greatly or relatively” produce a better parliament; 65% believe the new law will “greatly or relatively” develop political parties; and 75% believe the elections will be transparent. That same poll also found that 45% believe economic conditions are worse today than they were a year ago.

We can look at all these numbers in different ways and draw different conclusions, but it would be wrong to disregard them entirely. What they collectively point to is a significant credibility issue when it comes to the elections and the role of Parliament. You have a population whose majority is concerned with political reform and connect it to their stagnant economic situations, but have little trust in the very system mandated to address it. They are the undecided, and they are the non-voters.

Suffice to say, the State has a trust issue on its hand, and it won’t be resolved in a single election or the current election law.

While it’s easy to insist people should have some faith and go out and vote, in actuality, we are a population expected to work against muscle memory. From voter fraud and various election irregularities in the past, to piecemeal political reforms, predominantly self-serving representatives, bad parliamentary performance, and over two decades of a one-man-one-vote system ingrained in the voter psyche – there’s that overwhelming feeling that the game is rigged, and to play it would be a futile exercise.

If the State is genuine in eventually transitioning the country towards representative governments (and that’s a big ‘if’), the situation represents an uphill battle in establishing the public’s trust in a system that has never been seen as working in their favor to begin with. If anything, the parliamentary system has largely operated as a disservice to the people, providing no real opposition to the appointed government or State policies.

With all this in mind, the potential outcomes of this election seem fairly straightforward:

The optimistic scenario is one where enough quality candidates run, enough people feel encouraged to show up and vote for them, and we end up with a Lower House with comparatively diverse voices, the early beginnings of party politics under the dome, and subsequent real opposition to government policies. The most immediate outcome will be the start of a change in the voting culture, while the long-term outcome is the slight bridging of that trust gap, which remains proportionate to parliamentary performance.

The cynical scenario, which has a tendency of being the realistic one – is a game of musical chairs where the same old candidates reorganize themselves into lists stuffed with seat-fillers that can either ensure the top of the ticket secures a seat or the list is victorious regardless of lacking political platforms, the same people show up to vote for them, and we end up with a Lower House that looks just as familiar and defunct as its predecessors. The outcome of which is an expansion in the trust gap, and a hardening of the public’s mistrust.

The reality might be a mix of both, but whatever scenario a voter subscribes to says a great deal about their level of trust.

Boycotting vs. Participation

Most undecided voters will be making up their minds throughout the actual campaigning. The cautiously optimistic voter will gravitate towards any quality candidates stepping forward in hopes of offsetting the imbalances caused by traditional candidates. The absolute doubters will sit this one out, yet again, or actively pursue a boycott and be labelled as “non-believers” in democracy rather than disenchanted citizens (manifesting on Facebook groups and pages).

That said, substantial candidates and a perceived fair election won’t be enough to restore trust.

Beyond the spectacle that is the election, confidence will actually be built by what those representatives end up accomplishing during their time under the dome, as well as what the State allows them to accomplish. Confidence will be built by the public determining whether or not these representatives are working for the interests of their constituencies or for themselves. And it will be built by whether the State creates the necessary space to empower the body, rather than seek to co-opt it. We can just as easily end up with progressive-appearing candidates who turn out to be self-serving once they take a seat, and a State that keeps the lid tightly closed on the Lower House’s role.

It’s easy for the State to create a system, thrust it on the people and inform them that the ball is in their court, which is the rhetoric that’s currently being promoted. But this is a shared responsibility held by both the State and the people, in both the elections and subsequent Parliamentary performance. Given that the people have traditionally been on the losing end of this game, the burden of proof remains in the State’s court. Again, this isn’t simply about its ability to run a fair election, but what it does during the course of the Lower House’s run that sets the stage for a future Parliament people see as effective, legitimate and meaningful.

If you’re an undecided voter in search of a non-traditional candidate, you can sit out this election and wait for the State to initiate the paradigm shift needed for an entirely different kind of Parliament (and only the State is in a position to do so at this point), or deal with the cards you’ve been dealt. The latter – aka the cautious optimist – needs to carefully assess those running, find the candidate with a political reform platform, and then hold them accountable for what they do once elected. Write them, call them, bombard their Facebook pages if need be. It’s not enough to cast a vote. Those running need to feel the importance of the role they play in closing or widening that trust gap. Their accomplishments in this Parliament, or lack thereof, will significantly impact how people react to the next elections. Their ability to demand a better electoral system is perhaps the most significant legacy they’ll leave behind, and they need to be held to that.

Short of a willingness to do all that as a concerned voter, and short of an absence of quality candidates, showing up just to vote and dip your finger in ink is detrimental. You’re not only helping elect an empty shirt, you’re legitimizing an outcome you don’t agree with. In the absence of a protest vote, not showing up is likely a better way to voice your discontent.

Yes, participation is important, but in the context of this critical point in our history, participating in something meaningful is more important.

Your Two Piasters: