Voter apathy in Jordan
An open invitation

Low voter turnout in local elections intended to de-centralise governance in Jordan disproportionately boosted Islamists′ fortunes – something which may ultimately have more impact than the intended decentralisation. Commentary by Kirk H. Sowell

Jordan held its first ever local elections on 15 August, including provincial councils, municipal councils, local councils, mayoralties, as well as the Amman Secretariat, which governs the capital. The elections were officially labelled ″Decentralisation Elections″, a purported solution to the centralisation of wealth and political power in the capital.

Yet the structure of the two laws overseeing this decentralisation has generated public scepticism – which was reflected in the low voter turnout, reportedly a mere 32 percent – as to whether these elections will lead to a real devolution of power from the central government. Moreover, this low overall turnout disproportionately boosted Islamists′ fortunes, giving the Muslim Brotherhood a platform from which to criticise the government – which may ultimately have more impact than the intended decentralisation.

The legal structure for decentralisation was passed in 2015, with two laws – the Decentralisation Law, which governs the election and the powers of newly created provincial governments and the Municipalities Law, which governs both the capital and regular municipalities. Municipal councils and mayors used to be appointed by the cabinet.

Substantial role promised for local officials

Officials promoted the new federal structure as a way of giving Jordanians more say in how they are governed by allowing elected local officials to play a role in deciding how capital investment funds are spent on development. The day of the election, Murad al-Shanikat, a professor at Balqa University, explained on a state TV programme that local officials would now have ″very broad authority, authority defined clearly in terms of planning, growth and financing.″

People walk past election posters on a street in Amman, Jordan, on 06.07.2017 (photo: AP Photo/S. Malkawi)
New legislation greeted by public scepticism: Jordan’s local elections marked the implementation of two new laws – the Decentralisation Law and the Municipalities Law – designed to devolve wealth and political power from central government in Amman. Structural limitations imposed by the bills, not to mention the ongoing financial dependence of local councils, beg the question whether there will be any real improvement at grassroots level

In principle, the Decentralisation Law seems to provide local officials with a substantial role. Article 3 provides for the formation of an ″executive council″ in each province, headed by the governor, who is responsible for overseeing the execution of ″the public policies of the state″, dealing with emergencies and protecting public property, for example, while also approving the deployment of local security forces although he has no direct security control.

The executive council has further powers, most importantly preparing a budget for the province and capital investment proposals. The law also forms new provincial councils, 15 percent of whose members are appointed by the cabinet with the remainder elected and which has legislative and oversight authorities that provide a check on the executive councils.

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