As Jordan heads to the polls, voters might shun the ballot box | Middle East| News and analysis of events in the Arab world | DW | 19.09.2016
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As Jordan heads to the polls, voters might shun the ballot box

Jordanians are frustrated with the fight against 'IS' terrorism, the situation in Syria and the large number of refugees Jordan is hosting. Many say they won't bother to vote on Tuesday. Bethan Staton reports from Amman.

Campaign banners are everywhere in Jordan. Posters of airbrushed faces jostle for space on traffic islands and streets, some canvases, perhaps not by accident, torn to the ground and ripped.

On Tuesday, Jordanians head to the polls to elect a new parliament - but in a constitutional monarchy where the powers of elected officials are limited, it's a vote many regard as unimportant. According to a recent survey, 40 percent of eligible voters said they would not show up at the ballot box.

The frustration comes from genuine lack of political power, but also from Jordan's democratic culture. Many people tend to vote according to tribal and personal loyalties, dampening the force of strong policies and visions representing people's needs.

"People don't think or believe that we're a real democracy. They don't trust the institutions of parliament," Jamil Nimri, a current independent member of parliament who's running again in the northern city of Irbid, told DW.

"They believe the parliament doesn't have enough power. That they [the parliamentarians] look after their own interests and not those of the people, that they're not watching the government. That having the parliament and not having the parliament is the same," he added.

Odai Bisharat, an activist with youth movement Shaghaf, agrees with that sentiment. He believes politicians like Nimri, who he describes as taking an active role in representing his community, are few and far between: he says most parliamentarians are distant from the communities they're meant to represent, and lacking practical vision for politics.

"They just paper the laws and sign them without asking the people about it," Bisharat added.

'In the middle of fire'

Jordan's national elections come at a critical time for the kingdom. Increasing instability in Jordan is being fed by frustration over the fight against IS, home-grown jihadists, the situation in Syria and the huge number of refugees Jordan is hosting.

"Jordan is the only country still breathing in the middle of the fire," Bisharat told DW at a café in central Amman.

In a region torn by violence the Kingdom has remained relatively stable, but it's not isolated from the chaos around it. Bordered by the Palestinian Territories, Iraq and Syria, its demographics have been shaped by successive waves of migration as neighboring populations fled conflict. A recent census placed the Syrian population at more than 1.2 million - around 650,000 of whom are UN registered refugees.

Both in and out of the capital, the litany of woes are familiar. Unemployment is high, hovering at 14 percent. Close to one third of the young population is unemployed. Wages aren't generous, and cost of living can be steep.

"This situation puts pressure on Jordanians," Bisharat said. He believes governorates away from Amman are disproportionately affected. "Other areas in the south and the north don't have the same services, infrastructure and investment" as the capital Amman.

High influx of refugees

And while Jordan prides itself on hospitality, with a population of some nine million the impact of large migrations is keenly felt.

The arrival of refugees can be positive: a new, often highly educated population, and the support of the international community, could replenish the infrastructure and economy of a country with few resources of its own. But particularly in areas outside of Amman, many Jordanians feel jobs and services are stretched.

Syrian refugees (photo: picture-alliance/AP Photo/R. Adayleh)

More than one million Syrians are now in Jordan - around 650,000 of them are officially registered as refugees

"People see high prices, unemployment, difficult conditions for their lives," Nimri said. "You have boys and girls everywhere looking for jobs. And you can't satisfy their needs."

IS terror threats

In Nimri's governorate, the struggling economy isn't the only problem. In March security forces raided an 'Islamic State' cell in Irbid, killing eight. A few months later, in the town of Baqaa close to Amman, a young man walked into the branch of an intelligence office and shot five employees dead.

Further south, in the city of Ma'an, concerns over increasing IS sympathies have been high since 2014 when flags, graffiti and protests in favor of the terrorist group appeared. In total, it is thought 2000 people have left Jordan to join IS in Syria.

It may be easy to overestimate the political threat - Jordan has remained reassuringly free from attacks. The last major strike on a civilian target was in 2005, when Al Qaeda linked hotel bombings killed 60. According to a recent poll, Jordanians show strong support for Jordan's action against IS.

"The change people are seeing around them makes them even more fearful," Amani Hammad, a development expert based in Amman told DW. Party and policy-driven visions are sorely lacking in Jordanian politics and the parliament itself wields little genuine power, she said, adding she believes many people are uncomfortable with challenging that.

Is change about to come?

Yet this election, some believe things might change. As part of Shaghaf, Bisharat is one of several young activists urging young people across the country to become more engaged in electoral politics.

This year, too, a rewrite of Jordan's Electoral Law has seen a one-person, one-vote system scrapped in favor of lists that, in theory at least, hope to encourage the participation of political parties rather than just individual candidates.

A man waits by a line of election posters in central Amman (photo: DW/B. Staton)

Election posters are everywhere in Amman, but many voters say they might not show up at the ballot box

The change means many groups have returned to elections after years of boycotts. Most notably, the Muslim Brotherhood is back, fielding hundreds of candidates across several groups, and despite divisions with their ranks they're expected to do well. It's an anxiety-inducing prospect for the political establishment, despite the fact that Islamist groups are, in many cases, running on toned-down tickets. The Islamic Action Front, the Brotherhood's political wing, has switched its slogan "Islam is the solution" for the less confrontational "reform", and is fielding Circassian and Christian candidates too.

More than four million Jordanians over 17 are eligible to vote for 130 members of parliament - but the level of apathy around elections remains high. For all the problems Jordan faces, the weakness of electoral politics mean many will rather opt out than attempt to confront struggles and inadequacies through elections.

"People don't really feel like politics is a concern of theirs," Hammad said. "People just feel like they're concentrating on their livelihoods: taking one day at a time, trying to live."

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