Was the public wiser this time?

The elections of the 16th Parliament held a number of surprises which point to the simple fact that Jordanians are wiser than many give them credit. Much work is still needed to bring about political reform and accountability, but there is no doubt that these elections have shown the political maturity of many citizens.

This growing wisdom can be seen in both the decision to boycott the poll as well as in the choices made by the people who voted. The decision by the largest opposition party, the Islamic Action Front, and a coalition of secular (mostly left wing) smaller parties, to boycott was based largely on the deficiencies of the Elections Law.

Most democracy and political reform experts agree that no serious and genuine political reform can take place in Jordan without a progressive elections law that guarantees a much fairer distribution of electoral seats.

While the temporary law for the 16th Parliament increased the quota for women candidates to 12 and allowed populated cities such as Amman and Zarqa four more seats, the inequality between a district like Zarqa and the southern district of Karak, in terms of Parliament seats compared to population, remains a major problem of the electoral process.

Furthermore, the introduction of the virtual or sectoral seats without a proper mechanism to ensure immediate transparency increased suspicion that the government whispered in the ears of some candidates which sectors of their district had weaker candidates.

The turnout, whether it is the 53 per cent that the government announced or the lesser figure the opposition insists on, shows that the Jordanian government should take seriously the legitimate positions made by the parties that called for the boycott. I am sure that in future years the government will be more attentive to and less dismissive of the legitimate demands of the opposition.

While the government exerted strong effort to make sure that these elections are run freely and fairly, it often failed to curtail the usual abuse of vote buying, some of which done obviously and clearly.

One reporter from Radio al Balad was able to tape an entire dialogue with a go-between regarding selling her vote for JD50. No arrests or serious effort was made to stop this, despite the announcement a few days before the poll that a dozen Jordanians, including one candidate whose name was never published, were detained and questioned for vote buying.

The results also showed sophistication and maturity on the part of those who did vote, contrary to earlier expectations. Of the 80 former MP who decided to run again for Parliament only one fourth made it to the Lower House. By rejecting three fourths of former MPs, Jordanian voters added their voice to that of the King who had cut short the term of the 15th Parliament.

The choices voters made Tuesday reflect a level of knowledge of candidates and their positions, and a rejection of superficial slogans. The victory of a woman candidate without the need for quota is also credit to this political maturity.

It is not clear who gets the credit for this display of maturity. Certainly the educational level of Jordanians and their political experience had something to do with this. Media, in all their forms, especially new media and social networking, clearly made a difference this time. One local community radio station organised and broadcast live 11 debates that included 41 candidates running for the Parliament in most major Jordanian cities.

Jordan’s youth, which form a large part of the population, played a key role in both the boycott of the elections and the choices made at the polling stations. Young Jordanians were the most visible group in boycott activities and also represented the working engines in the campaigns of the candidates who won against gender tribal and political odds.

The wisdom of Jordanians should not be taken for granted, however. All eyes will now be focused on the members of the 16th Parliament, to see whether the confidence placed in it will be translated in passing a set of reform laws, especially an elections law that will satisfy both Jordanians who boycotted the elections and those who voted for change and reform.