Jordan’s twin local elections, held in mid-August, were no ordinary events. Aside from the municipal elections, the first to be held since 2013, voters were asked to elect representatives to the newly formed 12 Governorate Councils; an essential component of the government’s decentralization drive that aims to empower citizens in their own local communities.
The government will appoint members of the Executive Council for each governorate. They will set budgets and draw up plans for final approval by the Governorate Council. One objective is to devolve some powers to local communities, thus redefining the role of Lower House deputies who will be expected to focus on nation-wide issues rather than the needs of their own electoral districts.
This all sounds good on paper. The Decentralization Law of 2016 was seen as another milestone in efforts to introduce meaningful political, economic and social reforms. But the outcome of the elections revealed a number of shortcomings that require thorough revisions and careful reviews.
Aside from the need to review both the municipalities and decentralization laws, and amend some articles relating to election procedures, there are several other key challenges that need to be addressed.
Only 31 percent of Jordan’s 4.1 million eligible voters turned out to cast their ballots. Major urban centers like West Amman, Zarqa, and Irbid registered particularly low figures.
Voter apathy, which was seen at last year’s legislative elections, is dangerous and begs discussion at various levels. A growing number of citizens have become indifferent to the various manifestations of political life. It’s something that needs to be analyzed and understood and it goes deep into the demographic make-up of voters in these constituencies. Moreover, younger Jordanians in these urban areas are becoming detached from the political process, which does not bode well for the future of our democracy.
Aside from the Islamist-led coalition, providing an umbrella for various ideological leanings, no other political party was able to make gains or leave its mark on the twin elections. The National Coalition for Reform (NCR) was able to mobilize voters and managed to win the presidency of three municipalities, including Jordan’s second largest city Zarqa. Reforms to election laws were supposed to enliven political parties, but this has not happened. There can be no genuine democracy without competition between political party platforms. More than 25 years have passed since the resumption of democratic life in the Kingdom and yet political parties, numbering over 50, have had little or no effect on political life—except for Islamists parties.
Tribal affiliations and vote buying have both sadly played a prominent role in political life since the mid-1990s, and successive attempts to contain their influence have failed. Outside urban areas and marginalized rural towns, where voter turnout was much higher, tribal and family connections have played fundamental roles in polarizing voters and picking winners. Adding to that was the role that rich candidates with money to spend played in deciding the final outcome. This is a serious challenge, not only to democracy but to the goal of building a civil society that enshrines citizenship, meritocracy, equality before the law and fairness.
Not a single female candidate was able to win the presidency of a municipality while the percentage of women in Governorate Councils failed to reach 10 percent. Even though female candidates did better in municipality council elections, the overall figures do not reflect the percentage of female voters, nor do they bode well for efforts to empower women in society as a whole. Jordan remains a male dominated society and election results underline our failure to create true partnership between genders, in addition to doing away with discriminatory laws and negative cultural perceptions.
While monitors praised the elections as free of government interference, more than 500 breaches were recorded. The most serious took place in a district near Amman, where supporters of a candidate stormed a polling station and destroyed ballot boxes. Disregard for the law by the public is a worrying phenomenon that has nourished societal violence, criminal activities, and brazen assaults against symbols of the state, including police officers and civil servants. Unless the government and political and civic institutions make it absolutely clear that there will be zero tolerance in dealing with such unlawful acts by anyone, the credibility of the state will continue to suffer.
Even with all this, the elections still constituted a step in the right direction. What is important now is for officials and citizens to learn from the shortcomings and work collectively to address them. The road to reform was never going to be easy.