Preparations are under way in Jordan to conduct decentralization and municipality elections on 15 August. It will be the first time in the history of Jordan that elections are aimed at increasing citizens' involvement in public life, allowing them to decide on issues and plans in the 12 administrative divisions. These local and municipal elections will replace assigned consultative councils with elected councils. Under the Decentralization Law enacted last year, elections will be held for these governorate councils, which will be tasked with overseeing development projects and services on the local level. The law is meant to signify an important step in further democratization. The Interior Ministry has urged for a campaign to encourage Jordanians to vote in each of the country’s 12 governorates. However, it is difficult to secure progress in practice, as there is a lack of awareness and trust.
Under the Decentralization Law, Jordan is divided into 158 districts, with the distribution of the total number of 303 representatives varying according to area and population, in addition to a 10 per cent (32 seats) quota for women who do not succeed through direct election.
The decentralization law will grant eligible voters with two votes each as they will elect the governorate council. 85 per cent of the councils will be elected for a four year term, whereas the government will appoint 15 percent of the seats. Also, the prime minister's office holds the power to dismantle elected councils, call for new elections or postpone elections. Candidates for future councils should be at least 25 years old and they have to hold a university degree.
As for the municipal elections, Jordan is divided into 100 municipalities in addition to the Greater Amman Municipality. In each of the municipalities there is a 25 percent quota for women. To make local government more democratic, citizens can now elect their representatives and mayor. Each eligible voter will cast his or her vote on two separate ballots: one for the mayor and another for a local council member. Previously municipalities could elect only two thirds of their representatives and were not allowed to elect their mayor.
Because of the important legal changes, voters have to be informed about the influence of the laws on the election processes.
Public awareness campaign
The Independent Election Commission (IEC) has launched a door-to-door awareness campaign in order to raise awareness of at least 85 percent of eligible voters across the country. The adviser of IEC’s chairman, Aous Qutaishat, has mentioned that the campaign seeks to inform voters about the new laws and is assisted by around 19,000 volunteers. “We are moving slowly but surely to regain people’s trust in the electoral process,” he said.
The opportunity to volunteer was initially limited to young Jordanians, but the interest shown by adults has created more opportunities. Promotional campaigns are tailored to constituencies, with volunteers distributing nearly 15 million brochures. Candidates are also educated on various issues, such as invalid ballots and voting procedures.
However, according to a poll carried out by the International Republican Institute, 74 percent of the respondents are unaware of the fact that the Decentralization Law establishes elected governorate councils. Moreover, 7 in 10 respondents do not understand the purpose behind decentralization. In short, Jordanians are relatively uninformed and ill-prepared for the upcoming local and municipal elections. Authorities have invested in awareness raising, but citizens do not put efforts into learning about the regulations.
Criticism and public distrust
Whereas the law is supposed to increase the participation of the Jordanian people in the decision making process and encourage economic development, it has been surrounded by a lot of criticism. For example, once it was approved, activists hailed it as a big victory for women in Jordan considering the inclusion of the 10% women quota. However, Sisterhood is Global Institute (SIGI) has stated that women are still the weaker link in Jordan and they should be granted at least 30 percent quotas in all public spheres to be effective. Salma Nims, head of the Jordanian National Commission for Women, agreed: “Historically we have never seen women from such an approach. Women are seen as a minority, as a marginalised group and an add-on to society.”
This illustrates that the relationship between the government and the public is clearly damaged, according to Marwan Alshammari of The Jordan Times. Moreover, this is a persistent problem that has become more pressing in recent years, because of a lack of true and positive outcomes of economic policies. Successive governments failed to change the public’s perception, as there was no contact between the two. But even now that the door-to-door campaign has been initiated, citizens do not support the government’s efforts.
There is no trust in the political system; citizens have been given opportunities ‘on paper’ but the practical implementation lags behind. Outcomes are not tangible for citizens, nor can they be utilized to achieve progress. Alshammari concluded that there is still a long way to go, and especially important is an open dialogue between the public and government with the help of local bodies.
Sources: Al Jazeera, The Jordan Times, The Guardian, Al-Monitor