Jordan’s Predictable Municipal Elections And The Syria Factor

Looking back at yesterday’s municipal elections, there’s very little one can offer by way of analysis but these are just random snippets of my personal observations. The same electoral system established the same predications and yielded the same results. High tribal turnout, specifically in the south; low Amman and Zarqa turnout where more than half the population lives. Overall turnout hovered just above 30% according to various sources – compared to 2007, when turnout was over 50%. Various violations and brushes with violence like the presence of armed supporters – but like this year’s parliamentary elections, they were fairly minimal compared to past years.

Minister of Municipal Affairs Walid Masri and Interior Minister Hussein Majali said that pre-election reports indicated the “voting rate would not exceed 6-7 per cent in Amman and 15 per cent in the rest of the Kingdom. They highlighted that the results were better than the forecasts.” In other words, the government set the bar of the predicted turnout so low that it was successfully met, and even surpassed expectations. What a good day for political reform.

Majali also went on to offer this gem to explain the low turnout:

“As an interior minister and a Jordanian citizen, I could say that low participation by political parties was a major reason behind the decline in participation in the polls,” Majali said, adding some local media outlets tried to discourage citizens from voting.

While I honestly cannot say I closely followed media coverage of the municipal elections with absolute detail, but I’m not sure there was widespread negative coverage that discouraged voters from going out to vote. And as for political parties, I fail to understand what advantage they would have in running under the municipal elections framework. But if this is the case, then both media and political parties (which the state constantly refers to as being “weak”) are much more powerful than I thought they were, especially if they managed to keep the overwhelming majority of the 2.45 million people that were allowed to vote (3.7 million eligible minus the 1.25 million armed forces voters that were prohibited from voting) from heading to the polls on a holiday. I personally do not think the boycott of political parties or opposition groups made too much of an impact. There wasn’t much of an active, and public campaign to boycott or discourage voting (at least that I noticed) – especially when considering the limited amount of time to mobilize an effort that would make this kind of impact. Moreover, the 2007 elections saw a much higher turnout despite a very active boycott by the Muslim Brotherhood and other parties.

To be honest, I half expected that turnout would be higher given that there has been a noticable deterioration of public services, partly due to a rise in bad policy and partly due to a rise in refugees and the pressures they have undoubtedly placed on cities that can barely keep up with its own local population. That said, given this relatively low turnout, it does beg the question of why people didn’t care enough to go out and vote.

“Maybe the general mood and regional circumstances are the reason (behind the poor turnout,” Minister of Municipal Affairs Walid Masri said.

Yes, the low turnout is more easily explainable by the environment leading up to the elections. Compared to the parliamentary elections, the buzz was fairly minimal in the days prior to the elections. Campaign banners did not even make an appearance until a few days after Eid, so there was really only a two week window that one might consider a “campaign season”. Secondly, there was a palpable degree of apathy. Whether that apathy was due to a loss of faith, or that the results were predictable, or that there wasn’t much competition in the build up towards the elections, or that none of the candidates had much “brand recognition” we’ve come to expect from parliamentary elections, or whether it was regional events deterring voters – the result was pretty much the same: the majority of people simply did not care to cast a vote.

Amman, where roughly 2.8 million of the country’s 6 million people live, had the lowest turnout with 10.5%. This is a shocking number for a city where pressure on key services is likely the highest in the Kingdom. It is almost difficult to reconcile that number with what I have personally perceived to be a rise in complaints regarding the Greater Amman Municipality’s performance (from garbage collection to deteriorating roads), compared to past years. Neither the lack of political party participation nor media is to blame for such a low number.

But, at the top of the list of concerns is obviously an impending attack on Syria. If you were in Jordan yesterday and interacted with just about anything – including your mobile, TV, the Internet or human beings – then the likely topic of conversation was Syria, and not the municipal elections. And this is despite everyone being given the day off to go and vote (so that’s quite a feat).

While PM Nsour boasts that Jordan has held two elections in a single year while other countries are mired in political and security turmoil (which, regardless of one’s position, is actually an laudable effort) one has to assess what was gained. I would argue that the over-arching results these days has to do with a conscious decision that has been made by the majority of Jordanians to prefer the apparent security and stability of the status quo over anything else. It is an environment of fear, caution, and quiet observation – and that in itself is an environment conducive to voter apathy. It is in line with the overall decline in political participation, be it at the ballot box or on the street. That impact of that environment has been heightened in recent days with talk of an impending military strike on Syria, one that many fear has the potential for a regional spillover affect, with Jordan bearing the brunt of it. Couple that with the electoral system, and you get a low turnout.

Media coverage of the day-after has been an interesting indicator with Syria ruling the local headlines.

The municipal elections are indeed a win for the state (or, as they’ve put it, a “success”), despite the low turnout. But, at the end of the day, it felt like Brazil playing Somalia in a football match few people were watching anyway. It’s a win, just not much of one. One takeaway from all this is that the state can indeed hold transparent elections (when it chooses to), but it will likely have to do a lot more than hold elections if it genuinely hopes to increase political participation amongst the majority of voters.


  • Hey man, very interesting readings!
    I’m going to Jordan in October ( I’m 30 years old, masters political science and independant traveler). I was just interested to have your take in visiting your country. I know about most of the touristy stuff but I would like to have the opinion on the safety of tourists at a moment when we hear so much about military intervention in Syria. In my opinion, I am pretty sure your country won’t be affected (not physically I mean even though terrorism threats could be higher) and that tourists won’t be affected but I would stille love to have the views of a local. That would be greatly appreciated.

    Thank you!

  • Hi Matt,

    Welcome to Jordan in advance! I don’t think you should be running in to any troubles here. It’s a relatively stable and secure country. Yes, terrorism threats are likely to have increased, but in the context of things it’s most likely no more than what you’d find in western nations, including the US. Syria is close, and the spillover effect is evident, but I do not anticipate any major impact, God willing. So I hope you have a pleasant stay in the country.

Your Two Piasters: