To say it has been interesting to watch the Jordanian election season begin to unfold these past few days would be the understatement of the year. The unraveling of absurdities has been a fantastic spectacle to observe, to say the very least. The streets of the country’s cities are littered with posters showcasing familiar names, slogans, ambitions, to say nothing of familiar attempts to undermine the intelligence of the average Jordanian. Elections tents are propped up on empty plots of land in every district – and for those readers who are unaware, these are indeed, actual tents. From the streets at night, you can hear speaker blare their absurdities in to the microphone of a treble-laced speaker: ten-word slogans concise enough to be absorbed by any passerby, and especially for those who dare to walk in and have a seat under the big top just to watch the circus act.
Party politics is all but absent, which means there are no party platforms. Instead, every candidate is running independently, which means their political agenda is less of a platform and more of a series of beliefs or opinions on various matters that range from taxes to Palestine. In other words, pretty much every candidate believes in the same thing as everyone else that’s running in their district. Even candidates from the Islamic Action Front – the Muslim Brotherhood’s political arm in Jordan – are running as independents while their party boycotts the election. They are currently being tried by their party, with their membership in the Brotherhood at risk.
In the past two weeks, since the tents went up and the posters and banners littered our streets (the only sign that elections are taking place), the most frequently asked question in the public sphere seems to be: are you voting?
This question wasn’t asked as frequently a few years back, but this time, things are different. Not only is there a boycott by the only political party (and parties) that represent any form of political opposition to the government, but there is precedent. A 2007 election that was marred in voter fraud, both on a societal and government level. The parliament voted in was so disliked from the start that it spent most of its two-year tenure under the shadow of corruption allegations, only to be finally dissolved by HM King Abdullah, much to the joy and appreciation of most Jordanians.
Today, some of those same candidates are running once again and with similar force and gusto. Some are even using the exact same election posters they used in 2007. So if there was ever any tangible example of how things have not changed – there it is.
Thus, it goes without saying, the most frequent answer to that lingering question is: no. No, we will not be voting. And everyone has a reason. For many, there is complete disinterest and/or apathy. A generation completely disconnected with the political discourse of their country and raised to be that way by their environment. For others, there are valid reasons akin to the aforementioned: nothing has changed. Same candidates, same approaches, same system of governance, same lack of political reform, same absence of parties, same sense of nepotism, same sense of district and electoral favoritism, same everything. It is interesting to note the extent to which the 2007 elections impacted this specific group of non-voters who have lost confidence in the state’s ability and willingness to hold a true and free democratic election. They’ve been burned too many times to put their hand back in the fire again.
And then of course there’s a big chunk of people who could not vote if they wanted to, simply because they did not bother to go through the confusing registration process back in July.
Outside Amman, elections remain as tribal as ever. Families battle it out in each district, but the last name rules all. The fielded candidate is the tribe’s agreed-upon choice for representation. It might as well just be an appointment. No need to waste people’s time with actual voting. And these are the people who will outnumber all others in seat allocations within the parliament.
As for woman: while the numbers of candidates seem to have increased, a noticeable decrease in their overall presence can be observed. Even the posters that line the streets of Amman – if any measure of an election campaign (and they are) – are quite testosterone driven, with few woman posters to be seen.
And in the midst of all this is a seemingly growing grassroots movement to boycott the elections. Around 35 so-called Islamist students were arrested on campus for allegedly calling and/or encouraging a boycott, which, according to Jordan’s election law, is illegal.
The government has pushed its own campaigns to encourage voters, including the purple-laden posters and advertisements of “Same3na Sowtak” (let us hear your voice) and the anti-voter fraud posters of cartoon characters taking bribes. Neither of these campaigns have resonated well with the general public. Instead, more organic organizations are popping up, such as the “Mu8ade3oon Min Ajil il-Taghyeer” (boycotters for change). Unfortunately, 18 of the organization’s members were arrested last Saturday after trying to hold a small rally near the Prime Minister’s office. In short, the state wants everyone to let their voice be heard, just as long as they don’t say anything in opposition. This contradiction is also quite visible with the use of mosques as an electoral tool, with boycotting now considered to be a major sin.
So far, all signs are indicating that these elections will be no different than 2007.
It is astounding to think that in the actual political context of all this, what is being elected at the end of the day is a small and increasingly insignificant body of government that occupies a single corner of the legislative branch. The parliament – the lower house of parliament to be exact – is indeed elected by the people (in accordance to the faulty process described above) but it is one half of legislative body, with the upper house – the senate – being appointed by the King, and is stacked with former ministers (it is the official political retirement home for ex-prime ministers). Thus half are appointed, half are elected, and both, as a single body, must square off against an entire system that is all-together appointed. From the Royal Court to whatever cabinet is in season, the legislative process is created, shaped, approved and carried out by an appointed government. The lower house’s only role has been unofficially reduced to approving proposed legislation as a show of consensus by the representatives of the people – a role that has grown increasingly official with the isolation, marginalization and co-option of any opposition groups that get in the way.
That is the bird’s eye view of what role these elected officials can hope to play. And with the electoral process that votes them in, as well as the aforementioned elements at play safely in mind – one expect little change.
I would love to end with a bit more optimism, perhaps even an attempt to light a candle instead of cursing the darkness – but I’m choosing to do neither. When you don’t control the light switch, there is little you can do beyond mere observation and commentary of the status quo. And that’s exactly what this is.
As I said before, the most important aspect of this election is the process story: how a people, a government and a nation conduct a democratic election. The outcome remains rather insignificant in light of the political circumstances.