On November 23, Jordan’s King Abdullah surprised the nation by dissolving parliament half way through its mandate and calling for elections under a new elections law. Jordanians are not new to these sudden changes but as my organization, the International Republican Institute’s (IRI), most recent national public opinion poll showed, only seven percent of respondents were satisfied with parliament’s performance. In addition to low approval ratings, observers speculate a key reason for parliament’s dismissal is belief that some conservative parliamentarians were an impediment to the passage of important free market reforms needed to attract investment during a global economic downturn.
On December 9, the King surprised Jordanians further by dismissing his government and appointing Samir Rifai as the new Prime Minister. In his letter of designation, the King charged the new Rifai government with developing a new election law and organizing parliamentary elections no later than the end of 2010. He also ordered the new government to implement Jordan’s decentralization plan which lays out a new administrative system and elections for governorate (“local”) councils, mayors and municipal councils throughout the Kingdom.
Visiting Jordan few weeks ago, I had the pleasure of speaking with Jordanians and U.S. decision makers about the country’s future course of administrative reform and elections. At the root of Jordan’s reform challenges is the controversial parliamentary election law which stipulates “a one-person, one-vote” system, i.e. a single non-transferable vote, which allows voters to select only one candidate on the ballot. This system tends to favor tribal over party candidates. Jordan’s practice of weighting electoral districts, whereby it takes many more votes in urban areas like Amman to elect a representative than in tribal areas, also favors East-Bank Jordanians over those of Palestinian origin.
IRI’s poll, released in late October 2009, shows that only one in three respondents believe parliament is representative of all Jordanians. In addition, a majority of respondents want changes to key aspects of the current election law, to ensure greater representation between urban and rural tribal areas. With the announcement of a new government and clear signals from King Abdullah for reform, an opportunity exists to increase the representativeness of Jordan’s elected institutions, and to improve citizen participation in decision making-through decentralization. Unfortunately, some are describing the new government as “conservative” and there is speculation key ministers retained from the previous government will oppose, or at least slow down, reform efforts. The appointment of these figures does not appear to support the King’s professed desire for political and electoral reform.
All of this is to say, 2010 is shaping up to be an important year for the normally staid political scene in the Kingdom, as it will significantly shape the country’s future course of reform. The coming months will be key to setting the tone for future reforms in the Kingdom, including when parliamentary elections will take place and under what electoral law and whether sub-national elections (governorate and municipal level) will occur. Jordan’s demographic and regional realities have never been easy. But without the participatory involvement of all Jordanian citizens and sense that the country’s institutions represent all Jordanians, it will be difficult for the new government, or any government, to address important social and economic challenges.