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.

The limits of devolution

Yet the delegation of local authority is narrowly drawn and three elements of the statute suggest a weaker role than government representatives claim. While these councils can draft proposals for capital spending, control of both security and civilian ministries (such as education and health) remain in Amman.

The budgets and proposals are further required to be ″within the parameters set by the Ministry of Finance′s Budget Division″. Also, not only is a portion of the council appointed, but the executive council is entirely appointed – the governor, deputy governor, district officials, heads of each ministry′s local executive offices, plus three municipal executive directors appointed by the Ministry of Municipal Affairs. The law also does not give councils authority to raise revenue, such as through taxation or fees, making them dependent on the central government.

The Municipalities Law, which oversees both municipal councils and ″local councils″ for areas smaller than a municipality, delegates similar limited legislative powers to local authorities as in the Decentralisation Law. One key feature is that Article 3, governing the Amman Secretariat, grants the cabinet the right to appoint the mayor (or more literally, ″secretary general″) of Amman and 25 percent of council members, the other 75 percent of whom are elected. While this law did not detail the distribution of council seats within each province, the cabinet issued a ten-page listing of all local and municipal districts in February 2017.

Little more than local advisory councils

Aside from limitations imposed by formal legal provisions, two additional factors may help explain the lack of popular enthusiasm for the ″decentralisation elections″. First, local authorities′ powers are based on a delegation of parliamentary powers, which are themselves quite limited. Parliament does not have the power to initiate legislation, which is solely the right of cabinet and any amendments it makes can be reversed by the senate, which is entirely appointed by the monarch. The 2017 budget, for example, passed into law in precisely the same form as the government presented to parliament. Thus the ″powers″ delegated to local officials may make them little more than local advisory councils.

In addition, provincial and local councils lack financial independence. That they cannot levy taxes deprives them of the real financial power necessary for political legitimacy. Furthermore, the national budget′s total operating expenses modestly exceeded total government revenues in 2017, meaning the state′s ability to engage in any capital spending at all depends on either foreign aid or foreign-guaranteed loans.

Councils in urban areas are even less likely to get funding, as what the government does spend skews heavily toward rural areas to subsidise the monarchy′s tribal base – a factor that further lowered expectations for the councils in urban areas, which saw especially low participation at just 16 percent in Amman and 20 percent in Zarqa.

Replay of national elections

Voter turnout averaged about 31 to 32 percent across the kingdom, compared to 37 percent in last year′s national elections. When asked if the election was a ″success″, Khalid al-Kalaldeh, head of the Independent Electoral Commission, stressed that it was the first time Jordan had held local elections and while he wished the turnout had been higher, argued that the lack of major evidence of fraud showed it was a success.

Jordanian man votes at a polling station during last year's general elections (photo: AP Photo/Raad Adayleh)
A golden opportunity: ″while local authorities may not live up to the expectations hyped by government planners, they may give the Islamist opposition a platform from which they can criticise the central government when money fails to come through for their proposed capital investment projects. And if money does come through, they can claim credit for subsequent development,″ writes Sowell

The results were roughly a replay of last year′s national elections. Of the few seats won by party lists, Islamists won a modest plurality in a highly divided field, while the strong majority of seats were won by a range of independent tribal candidates.

The National Coalition for Reform (NCR), the list backed by the Muslim Brotherhood′s Islamic Action Front and which included allied tribal candidates, claimed wins for 78 of its 154 candidates.

The NCR chose to run only in the areas where it thought it had the best chance of winning, most notably heavily Palestinian urban areas, so this was still only a fraction of the total seats across the country. Twenty-two of the seats in the Amman Secretariat were up for election and the NCR ran for twelve of them and won five. According to Murad Adaileh, head of the NCR′s election office, it won 41 of 88 contested local council seats and 25 of 48 contested provincial council seats.

The NCR also won three of six contested mayoralties, most notably in Zarqa, Jordan′s second-largest city, where prominent Brotherhood leader Ali Abu Sakr was elected mayor – and since the mayor of Amman (the largest city) is appointed, not elected, this gives an Islamist the largest directly elected mandate in the country. Meanwhile, the government-aligned Muslim Centre Party, the NCR′s primary rival, claimed 33 seats, including three mayoralties, five seats in the Amman Secretariat, sixteen municipal council seats and nine in the provincial or local councils.

Strong showing by tribal and Islamist candidates

The strong majority of seats were won by candidates running on personal or tribal mandates, rather than a party platform. Abdelrahim al-Maayaa, head of the Jordan – Turkey Business Council, noted when electoral lists were formed that campaigns were based on ″personal interest″ rather than manifestos.

As the results came in, Al-Ghad estimated that around 85 percent of all seats were won by tribal candidates. Since the Islamist lists included allied tribal candidates, this figure overlaps with those above. While official election results identify winners only by name and not by party, no other list is claiming success.

In the parliamentary elections on 20 September 2016, the NCR won 11.6 percent of the vote in the districts in which it competed, so managing this time to win nearly half of the seats it contested suggests a moderate improvement. Thus while local authorities may not live up to the expectations hyped by government planners, they may give the Islamist opposition a platform from which they can criticise the central government when money fails to come through for their proposed capital investment projects. And if money does come through, they can claim credit for subsequent development.

Either way, the election is unlikely to be a watershed for how the state functions, but it could give the Muslim Brotherhood the status of unofficial opposition they have long sought.

Kirk H. Sowell

© Carnegie Endowment for International Peace 2017

Kirk H. Sowell is a political risk analyst and long-time observer of Jordanian politics.

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