AMMAN — With the expected passage of the amended Elections Law on Thursday, experts say the Senate will deliver a major setback to Jordan’s reform drive.
They warn that the controversial legislation may trigger a nationwide boycott and plunge the Kingdom into what they describe as a ”political crisis”.
After triggering election boycott threats from political parties, popular movements and tribes, observers welcomed the decision to seek amendments to the controversial 2012 Elections Law.
However, one week and an extraordinary session of Parliament later, they say the state has produced an amended law that hardly differs from its predecessor, and is likely to receive the same critical reception.
The amended legislation, issued by the government last week, included minor changes to Article 8, which outlines the number of seats allocated at the national level through proportional representation.
The amendment raises the number of seats from 17 to 27, falling well short of opposition groups’ demands of 50 per cent of the 140-seat Chamber.
While the government claims the move aims to boost the representation of political parties under the Dome, experts point out that the same amendment raised the total overall number of seats in the Lower House from 140 to 150, reducing the increase in representation of party lists to a mere 6.2 per cent.
“This formula will not lead to a parliament based on political parties, and it will not even be a step forward in developing a political party culture,” Musa Maaytah, former political development minister and activist, told The Jordan Times in a recent interview.
With the party list system allowing for groups of independents and even tribes to run for seats at the national level, political parties will likely face stiff competition and struggle to secure even a majority of the 27 seats, lawmakers admit.
“With a crowded field, we will probably end up with no more than 15 or 10 MPs from political parties,” said Abdullah Ensour, former foreign minister and current MP.
“How can we call this a step towards an independent parliament?”
While opposition groups and political observers have described the minor amendment as “disappointing”, the major point of contention, and concern, among experts is the failure of the amendments to increase the number of votes allocated to citizens at the district level.
Under the legislation, 123 seats will be decided by one vote at the district level in what experts claim is a “carbon copy” of a one-person, one-vote formula that has produced successive tribal- and independent-dominated parliaments that have failed in their monitoring and legislative roles and eroded “the public’s faith in the political process”.
“With most of the seats to be determined on the same system, we are going to essentially get the same parliament,” said Ensour.
According to observers, by maintaining the one-person, one-vote electoral system, authorities risk more than the Lower House’s legitimacy.
According to Marwan Muasher, former deputy prime minister and architect of the National Agenda reform programme, by failing to alter the one-person, one-vote system amid growing public frustration over the delay in democratic reforms, lawmakers and authorities are “playing with fire”.
“Unlike other Arab states, Jordan has had the luxury of time to implement gradual political reforms to raise confidence in the political system,” said Muasher, who now serves as vice president for studies at the Carnegie Endowment.
“But it seems that decision makers have misread the luxury as a lack of need for true reform, and we are now quickly running out of time and options.”
The failure to implement a “democratic” elections law at a time Libyans, Tunisians, Moroccans and Egyptians have gone to the ballot box and voted for change has created a widespread sense of political disenfranchisement among Jordanian citizens, observers claim, a sentiment they warn places the country’s political future at stake.
In its rushed drafting of the amended law, observers say the government exacerbated the sense of disenfranchisement by repeating the same “fatal mistakes” made in the crafting of the original law by failing to include various political and social groups in the process, alienating the majority of Jordanian society.
“Yet again decision makers failed to hold a wider dialogue with the opposition and other groups and this has built up resistance,” said Musa Shteiwi, director of the University of Jordan’s Centre for Strategic Studies (CSS).
“There is still no sense of public ownership of this law, and the way things are now, this will lead to an even wider boycott.”
Few options left
With various political and social forces across the spectrum gearing for a national boycott campaign and the window for dialogue rapidly closing, observers say decision makers are left with options to avoid “tainted elections” later this year.
According to experts, Amman now faces two options: delay elections to later next year and restart the drafting of the Elections Law from scratch, an option decision makers have repeatedly ruled out, or calling for yet another extraordinary session to revise the law once again.
“There has been a lack of planning from the start, and now it is almost impossible for the state to save face while correcting its own mistakes,” Muasher said.
According to Mohammed Abu Rumman, researcher at the CSS and political observer, repeated refusal of the current government to take opposition views into account has pushed the Kingdom to the tipping point of a “political crisis”.
“Unless the Senate introduces last minute changes to the Elections Law, we may have missed the last chance to prevent the country from entering a dangerous political phase.”
As countries stretching from North Africa to the Arabian Gulf move forward with democratic reforms, observers say authorities and lawmakers will finalise a law they claim aims to take Jordan back “to the old rules of engagement”.
“It seems that authorities believe the Jordanian spring is over and that we can return to the way things were before January 2011,” Ensour said.
“I hope for the country’s sake they learn that they are wrong before it is too late.”