As the elections kick off this Tuesday, one is forced to reflect on the process story thus far. This has been my only real interest in the campaign season – the process that is unfolding. While there’s no way to know just what to expect on election day with regards to state “interference” until the actual day, some signs have been positive while others not so much. Putting aside the boycott of the Islamic Action Front – the largest political opposition party in the country – and the subsequent internal conflict that arose when some members of that party chose to run independently, there is a lot to be said about what people are saying and thinking on the street.
For the most part, the people I ask seem to be boycotting, whether out of political convictions or out of disinterest. How that will be reflective on the ground is completely up for grabs and if I said that 90% of the people I meet are boycotting that is as accurate a reflection as saying 465 people are coming to an event because they marked “attending” on the Facebook page. Conversations about whether to utilize a white ballot as a sign of protest or to full out boycott have also been conversations I’ve seen evolving over the past few weeks. All in all, what boycotts are happening on the ground are the silent type, or quiet boycotting, especially since it is deemed illegal to call for the boycott of an election in Jordan. Again, to what extent this will make an impact at the polls, specifically in areas where voter turnout is traditionally lower, such as Amman, compared to higher turnout areas, such as Karak.
What has been interesting to note in these evolving offline conversations is how people talk about the elections. For the most case, the chatter is negative, or, to be specific, a suspended disbelief that they will be carried out in a wholesome manner. However, what I’ve noticed is the way in which candidates are mentioned.
For starters, a great deal has been said about campaign posters. Candidates are often distinguished by the only public presence they have: their posters. The grinning photoshopped faces and the abundant farce that are their slogans have been the quintessential definition of what the Jordanian elections have come to represent. Most conversations are geared towards picking apart the absurdities of the posters theyâ€™ve seen, but this tends to lead in to a more interesting and important conversation, one that is based on dividing candidates in to two major components: the corrupt and the not-so-corrupt.
In recent weeks Iâ€™ve been calling this the â€œmu7taramâ€ factor, i.e. the social measurement of a candidate based on how â€œrespectableâ€ he or she is thought to be. This is usually said in the context of â€œI heard heâ€™s a respectable manâ€. That is the extent of the conversation if the social perception is a positive one. If it is negative, then that candidate is torn apart in the conversation based on stories, rumors, hearsay, or anything else people have heard about the person, especially if theyâ€™ve run in the elections before, as is the case it seems with the majority of those running in these elections (which makes you wonder if weâ€™re having elections at all). These conversations seem to make up the bulk of talk, especially for the 40+ age group, which makes up the majority of voters in this country.
With all that in mind, the posters, slogans and electioneering has served one simple purpose: they are a glaring reminder that weâ€™ve been through all this before. Electoral deja vu is imprinted in nearly every poster or sign you see on the streets of Jordan as most of the candidates that ran for the last election (and won) are running yet again in this elections, with some not even bothering to change their poster. This naturally begs the question that if HM King Abdullah dissolved the last parliament due to its â€œineffectivenessâ€, then what is the point of hosting another election if the same people are running and are likely to win based merely on their campaign budgets (which is the topic of another post).
It is quite possible the state is hosting these elections in an effort to redeem itself from the 2007 electoral process that was marred with fraud and government intervention. However, that seems quite unlikely.
The youth vote is nearly non-existent. Besides those who live mostly outside Amman and are accustomed to voting with their family members for other family members (tribal votes) the youth vote is a thin line on the horizon. The government has done quiet a bit this year to try and attract this vote but those efforts are confounded by the realities that govern the Jordanian elections. Many youth are disconnected and politically apathetic, while others see the elections as yet another charade. What fuels both perceptions? The answer is extensive, but to sum it up, the former have been largely raised to avoid being political or partaking in any political activities, and to a large extent, above 18 voters have gone through the anti-politicization of university campuses where student elections tend to experience polarized results. As for the former, this is a fairly highly acute demographic that is tuned in to the realities they see unfolding on the ground, and react negatively to how they see things being played out, whether in this election or in other elections. There is also a demographic that sees voting as a cost – a cost that is calculated by what it takes to register for elections (renewing a national ID, traveling to the passport department), and even the higher cost of being scared that upon registering for a new ID, their Jordanian status will be revoked. This is not a large majority by any measure, but it is a significant demographic in my opinion, and these fears and costs do inherently play a role in a country where youth are relatively financially disabled. The state has largely failed to rally this vote and I will bet good money that election day will showcase that failure.
The woman vote is an interesting tale. It may be just me, but women were much more present in the 2007 election. Their overall presence was felt, and the government did seem to invest a bit in promoting the need to vote for women. Today, the quota has been increased (unfortunately), but with it, the female candidate has been largely faded. Reem Badran in Ammanâ€™s third district has probably been the most visible of the group, however, this is largely due to her campaign expenditure (Badran has one of the most luxurious campaign tents).
Then comes November 9th. Election day. A declared holiday. But also the fifth anniversary of the Amman bombings. A national tragedy that stole over 60 lives in an abhorrent act of terrorism. It is this day that the state has chosen to host an election. Why? No doubt in an awkward show of â€œfreedomâ€ and â€œlibertyâ€ in a country where both those things are highly relative and volatile. The politicization of a national tragedy is, to say the very least, a disastrous move by the government and sends the absolutely the wrong message to send. In a comment I left on an article that addressed this issue on 7iber, I mentioned one clear point: the Amman bombings has become a lost opportunity for the state to truly change minds when it comes to extremism. The failure to properly generate genuine dialog revolving around an event that hit close to home (literally) has been, over time, eroded down to a stub, and the decision to politicize the event (whatever the intent may be) is most certainly the final nail in the coffin.
Forcing the conversation to become about â€œdemocracyâ€ on a day that is considered to be a national tragedy has destroyed the value of that day. Can we imagine Bush Jr. attempting to move the US elections up to 9/11 during his second term, just to play up the fear angle? The situation here is fairly similar but perhaps more important as are a demographic that exists in a region where extremism is a mindset and changing minds is incredibly difficult to do. November 9th has become a lost opportunity to genuinely change minds, and it will be difficult to restore any sense of dignity to this national tragedy after it has been politicized by the state.
But just as importantly deciding to host elections on this day is perhaps a demonstration of the political theater one can expect to unfold on election day. Parliamentary elections for a body of government that holds little political clout or leverage in the context of the Jordanian political structure, has often been believed to be the stateâ€™s attempt to window-dress and showcase its openness towards political reform, even though legislatively nothing of significance has really indicated the state is genuine about taking forward steps in that direction.
If holding elections on November 9th is indeed part of a showcasing scheme, then welcome to the show that never stops.
But in traditional Jordanian fashion, we can always rest easy knowing that weâ€™re a bit â€œbetterâ€ than everyone around us (or as a recent article in The Economist suggests, weâ€™re the â€œCanada of the Middle Eastâ€).
Except, not really.