Voting in Jordan, 2017 Edition

Last week saw local elections being held in Jordan. The last such happened in 2013, but the 15 August 2017 edition differed by allowing Jordanians to vote, for the first time, for governorate councils (governorates, muḥāfaāt, are Jordan’s mid-level local administrative units) in addition to municipal councils and mayors. Turnout was relatively low at 31.7%, and though the votes were as usual rather scattered, an Islamist coalition, the National Alliance for Reform – led by the Islamic Action Front (IAF) party and linked to the Jordanian Muslim Brotherhood – won a respectable number of seats. (Recently the Islamists have returned to the electoral scene in Jordan, after boycotting all elections for a decade in protest at the skewed electoral system.)

It’s debatable to what extent any elections are really a genuine reflection of democratic governance, given the constant tinkering with electoral laws and gerrymandering that maximise the power of areas considered to be loyal to the Jordanian monarchy. (Not that other countries, including the UK, are immune to such criticisms…) Further, while the IAF and the Brotherhood are often portrayed as oppositional forces, they have a long history of cooperation and involvement in regime and state projects. They are a visible element in public discourse, and despite the authorities making moves against them at certain points – such as, in 2014, arresting the senior Brotherhood leader Zaki Bani Rsheid over a Facebook post criticising Emirati foreign policy – they are not directly vilified. The Brotherhood’s societal vision also accords quite nicely with the official portrayal of Jordan as a “Muslim, conservative” country – in contrast with other, especially leftist, parties. Still, it’s interesting to see how local Jordanian media responded to the most recent election round: the different framings, symbolic and linguistic, that produced them as a media event, an exceptional occasion in the otherwise regular daily flow of posting, broadcasting and programming.

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The independent media outlet AmmanNet, linked to the community radio station Radio al-Balad and heavily committed to media professionalism, limited itself to factual reporting of the events, with news stories on Jordan’s electoral commission (IEC) announcing the results as well as other aspects of the vote such as the proportion of elected female candidates (quite low at 10%) and the number and type of election violations. The most interesting is probably their round-up of opinions of columnists from Jordan’s three biggest dailies – al-Ghad, al-Dustour, and al-Rai – regarding the elections. These all betray a rather patronising tone, bemoaning the low turnout and presenting it as proof that Jordanian citizens don’t really recognise the importance of elections. Jordanians don’t know what local governance means; they should be educated; and so forth. It’s a very elitist viewpoint, and one rather typical of these outlets.

AmmanNet’s writers didn’t add their own opinion to the choir – though an impression of their position on the elections can perhaps be gleaned from the rather surreal video they published on YouTube documenting the “atmosphere of the municipal and local government elections” on 15 August. Driving through the streets of Amman and its environs, there are candidate posters everywhere; but otherwise, it looks like a perfectly ordinary summer day. Light road traffic and no crowds on the streets. And maybe that’s all the commentary that’s needed.

A much more serious take on the elections was provided by Hayat FM, the Islamic radio station linked to the Muslim Brotherhood. The programme “Studio Analysis with Iris Jarrar” on 16 August featured some considerably more critical commentary of the election process. (Note, in the video below, the rather bizarre collage aesthetics of the broadcast: the host, Jarrar, postures and gestures like a television host – but other visual cues give her an unequivocal radio frame, including the headphones, studio layout, and the list of different FM frequencies on which Hayat FM can be listened to. Some intriguing material there for a future blog post…) At the very beginning of the programme, Jarrar straight out declares that, in the elections, “the state has won” (iḏan fāzat ad-dawla). “And the street has lost” (wa-fašil aš-šāri‘) – the “street,” in this case, being a euphemism for ordinary citizenry and non-elites.

The two guests Jarrar phones up to comment, the mayor of Zarqa (from the National Alliance) and the general secretary of the Democratic Popular Unity Party, both agree with her assessment. The elections don’t mean much; they’re merely surface “form” (šakl), with no true substance. The “Islamists” (islāmiyīn) may have gained a plurality of votes this round, but this is ultimately of little import, as the extant legal and political system still prevents proper democratic procedures from taking place. Reform, if this is reform, still has a long way to go.

What’s especially interesting is how Hayat’s guests frame the opinion and position of Jordanian voters – the “street” – in contrast to the elite newspaper columnists. This is still a formal, ‘serious’ analysis of the situation: the contributors speak in formal Standard Arabic, with only a few (and quite unremarkable) colloquial admixtures, and use formal terms and structures that belong to the same ‘elite’ idiom as that of the writers of al-Ghad and al-Dustour. But the substance is quite different. Where the columnists are patronising, dismissive of the people’s ignorance, Hayat’s opinion-makers give “the street” much more credit. To be fair, they still refer to it as the street – the implied stance remains condescending, framing it as folksy, non-official, non-serious. On the other hand, it is actively given agency in the electoral process. Turnout was low not because people don’t realise the wisdom of their leaders granting them local governance, but because they know, from past electoral experience, that participation isn’t really meaningful. They have lost their “trust” (ṯiqa) in democracy. They know very well what is going on. And the state is, ultimately, the true victor.

In the non-government radio field, Hayat is rather an outlier. For a sharp contrast, consider the election coverage of the army-run radio station, Radio Hala. Their stance is captured nicely by this Facebook video, drawn from their live coverage of the events. Most of the discussion is on technicalities of electoral procedures, and how democratic and electoral procedures have “developed” (taṭṭawarat) in the most recent elections. The language is rather more colloquial than in Hayat’s coverage – closer to the high-level “radio colloquial” of Jordanian non-government stations – and there is less effort to capture the broadcast aesthetics of television: the camera is more ‘overlooking’ the dialogue than being the focus of the two broadcasters’ performance. But the clip is still strewn with nationalist and patriotic symbolic cues, from the giant Jordanian flag in the background (though this is admittedly always flying in the Hala live studio), to the two broadcasters’ polo shirts in the colours of the Jordanian flag, to the bagpipe-heavy soundtrack.

Subsequent reports on Radio Hala’s sister news website, Hala News, basically regurgitated the government and the monarchy’s official line: the elections were a great success for democracy, an important step towards reform, and so on. There was little to no analysis of issues with the election or its aftermath – including, perhaps bizarrely, any in-depth discussion of who had actually won. Which is, of course, quite different from international media that reported on the event. For the likes of Reuters and the New Arab, the ‘Islamist victory’ proved to be the easiest tack – even a necessary one, in the absence of the kind of intricate factional politics that English-language news are used to dealing in.

But perhaps local media realised that the results weren’t what actually mattered as far as these elections were concerned. This is best exemplified by the live studio programme ran by Jordan’s national television (JTV) the day after the elections. Although, again, couched in colloquial language, with shiny digital studio visuals, this merely repeated how great an achievement for Jordanian democracy these elections were. Discussion of results was limited to the demographic and personal qualities of the candidates: it was seen as a good sign that many were “young” (šabāb), or women, or fresh faces new to the sphere of politics… and as for the others, they were of course older and more experienced and well-trusted by their constituents. So all was good. Much shoulder-patting all around.

The JTV also featured live announcements of election results. And these, I think, are what most clearly succinctly the nature and relevance of elections in Jordan. In each case, a middle-aged man from the local electoral commission stepped up to the camera with a piece of paper, and began to read out the results: the name of each elected candidate, and the number of votes they had won. “Jamal Sanad Subh Abu Darwish Bani Hussein Abu Ashar, 3176 votes. Majed Fawaz Oud al-Sharari, 3029 votes.” A fully personalised form of presentation, and completely opaque to any outsider. Who are these people? What platforms do they run on? Do they belong to specific lists or parties? Nobody says; nobody seems to care; it doesn’t matter. It’s much more important that a set number of people have voted, that the elections have really taken place. And all that remains – as many of the vote-readers do – is to give congratulations to the voters and the winners… but, even more so, to the king, for making all of it happen, and being the ultimate leader of all of Jordan. No illusions as to who holds the real power here.

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Regarding the political aspects of elections in Jordan, there isn’t much more to be said than what’s covered in this (almost year-old) post by Naseem Tarawneh, published on the occasion of last year’s parliamentary elections. Apathy is, really, the prevailing response. But looking at local media coverage, and especially the language and symbols of this coverage, is also important for giving texture and context to such events. These are public statements, public debates, with time and resources invested into them. And the priorities and biases that they betray are quite telling – both in terms of the structures that are in place, and the long road ahead for anyone wishing to challenge them.

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Voting in Jordan, 2017 Edition