Could Jordan’s Courts Dissolve Parliament?

The events in Syria have attracted a substantial amount of attention, but it is also important not to overlook other issues as well, such as a recent court ruling in Jordan that could result in new elections being held. It could also continue a potentially troubling precedent of judicial decisions that have dissolved elected houses of the legislature in more than one country.

The Jordanian Constitutional Court has said that it is reviewing the electoral law under which the elections were held in January after a lower court ruled that the law was unconstitutional. When asked about the issue a Spokesman said only that there has not been a decision that would dissolve the lower house of parliament so far, but implicitly left open the possibility that the Constitutional Court could make such a decision in the future. The court is required to issue a decision on this challenge to the electoral law within the next 30 days.

If the Constitutional Court were to rule that parliament was elected incorrectly, the decision would be the first of its kind in Jordan since the elected parliament was restored in November 1989, despite numerous revisions to the electoral law since then. However, it would not be the first time that a judicial decision has dissolved parliament in an Arab country. In June 2012 the Egyptian Supreme Constitutional Court ruled that the lower house of the Egyptian parliament had been incorrectly elected and needed to be dissolved. The judges who issued that decision had been appointed under Mubarak, and the decision was seen by some as part of an effort to prevent Islamists from assuming power, but the actual result of the decision was rather different. What actually happened was that Mohamed Morsi won the July 2012 Presidential election held one month later and became President without a properly elected parliament (even one controlled by his party) to provide a check on his powers. Could this have led ultimately to the events which precipitated Morsi’s ouster? Perhaps, or perhaps not. But it is still important to recognize the fact that this decision and the lack of an elected parliament played a role in Morsi’s decision to try to take additional power for himself after he was elected.

Similar events have happened more than once in Kuwait as well, as a decision by their constitutional court ruled in 2012 that the parliament elected in February 2012 (and dominated by the opposition) was incorrected elected, and was thus dissolved. Then the Emir issued a decree changing the electoral law, and another election was held (and boycotted by the opposition) in December 2012, and the Constitutional Court overturned that election as well later on, which required yet another election this year.

Regardless of how one feels about the electoral law, giving the judiciary the authority to dissolve parliament with a court ruling is a poor precedent to set, and is probably not likely to provide the result that those challenging the electoral law have hoped for. It could even provide a way for the regime to dissolve a parliament that it was unhappy with in the future. It is true that the electoral system under which the elections were held in January was flawed, but it is also important to seek reform through means other than those which could have future unintended consequences.

Political Prospects for Kuwait’s Next Election

On Sunday, the Constitutional Court ruled in favor of the Emir’s decree that reduced the number of votes for each citizen from four to one. However, it also dissolved the National Assembly elected in December 2010 on a technicality, and because it ruled that a decree that the Emir, Sheikh Sabah Al-Ahmad Al-Sabah, issued setting up a National Election Commission violated Kuwait’s constitution. New elections to replace the dissolved parliament must be held by August under Article 107 of Kuwait’s constitution.

Although it dissolved the loyalist-dominated parliament elected in December, the regime’s officials seemed mostly pleased with the ruling. General Mahmoud Al-Dousari, Interior Ministry Undersecretary for Major Security Affairs said that protests following the ruling would not be permitted, even in Erada Square where they had previously been allowed, claiming that the ruling of the court was final and Kuwait’s citizens accepted it. The Chairman of the National Electoral Committee itself was supportive of the ruling, despite the fact that the court eliminated his job, and he noted that a new decree would need to be issued regarding municipal elections that were to be held on July 6th. The Emir gave a speech in support of the ruling and urged citizens to accept it.

The opposition’s reaction was mostly negative, although the National Democratic Alliance, an alliance of liberal opposition groups announced it would take part in the elections that must be held by August. Other opposition groups reiterated their intention to boycott the upcoming elections if they are held under the one-vote decree. Twenty-four former MPs met at the office of former National Assembly Speaker Ahmed Al-Saadoun, at which they criticized the decision and announced they would boycott the upcoming elections. However, the regime may be calculating that turnout will rise among liberals who decide to participate as well as tribes which vote after boycotting the previous election. Recently the Emir has made attempts to reach out to Kuwait’s tribes, which were a major source of support for the opposition. Prior to the ruling the leader of the Awazem tribe (Kuwait’s largest) spoke against opposition demands and urged Kuwait’s citizens to attend a dinner in honor of the Emir.

The regime appears to be seeking a scenario in which increased tribal participation would boost turnout, and discredit opposition leaders who boycotted the elections. It could then continue with its strategy of targeting individual supporters of the opposition for prosecution (for example, jailing Twitter users accused of insulting the Emir). It may then in the future hope to placate (and to some degree co-opt) opposition leaders to further enhance its arguments for legitimacy.

The problem is that while in the short term such tactics may well be successful, they also risk eroding the regime’s legitimacy even further. Without this legitimacy, there is a major risk of having the already pervasive economic arrangement (in which oil revenues are used to provide benefits and subsidized state employment to citizens) become even more critical for the regime to sustain itself in power, and even more difficult to change even though in the long term it almost certainly has to.

Jordan’s 2013 Parliamentary Elections at a Glance

Updated January 23, 2013—Today, approximately 2.3 million registered Jordanian voters (out of approximately 3.3 million eligible voters, and a total population of about 6.2 million) will begin voting in parliamentary elections to elect 150 MPs to the House of Deputies. There are a total of 1475 candidates competing for these seats, including 191 women. Of these, 606 are competing for the local district seats (including 105 women) and 819 are competing for the party list seats (including 86 women).

While analyzing the politics of the campaign and elections, and their importance in the context of Jordanian political reform is essential, it is important at this stage to also understand how the seats are being allocated. This is important both to properly understand the results of the election, as well as the reasons why the elections have been divisive. The regime has described them as a step on the reform process, as King Abdullah will consult parliament before naming a Prime Minister, while much of the opposition, including the Islamic Action Front (IAF) and many reformists have decided not to participate in the election. Regardless of one’s position it is important to note the procedures involved in electing MPs to the new parliament.

It is important to note the following sources for more information about the electoral process. The census data from 2011 is from GeoHive, while the number of seats in each district are from the electoral commission website.

House of Deputies: What’s at stake?

There are a total of 150 seats in the House of Deputies. Of these, there are 108 elected from 45 districts, 27 elected from party lists nationwide, and 15 reserved for female candidates under a quota system. There are also 12 seats reserved for minority groups (9 for Christians and 3 for Circassians and Chechens), and 9 seats reserved for bedouin. These are included in the district seats. While this may seem very complicated, the summaries below will make it easy to understand.

The most important thing to remember is that Jordanians will cast not one but two votes: one for the party list seats and the other for their local constituency. This is different from prior elections in which Jordanians had cast one ballot.

The electoral reform law made changes to the election process, but much of the opposition argues that it does not go far enough and is merely cosmetic. The law increased the number of seats from 120 to 150, with the introduction of proportional representation for 27 seats, and an additional 3 more seats assigned to female candidates under a quota system, increasing the number of seats reserved for women from 12 to 15. What remains is 108 seats elected from districts, which vary greatly in size. In Amman, MPs represent 96,000 residents each, while in Tafila, each MP represents approximately 22,000 residents.

Party List Seats (27 seats) – UPDATED

There are a total of 27 seats that are allocated to party lists. As mentioned above, Jordanians will cast two votes, one of which is for the party list seats and the other is for the district seats. There are a total of 61 party lists competing for these seats and the lists each have between nine and twenty-seven candidates.

Unlike the proportional representation systems in many countries, there is no minimum percentage threshold for a list to win seats. The number of seats awarded to each list will be calculated using the following method:

  1. The total number of votes each list receives will be divided by the total number of votes that all party lists receive.
  2. The resulting percentage will be multiplied by 27, with the resulting integer number being the preliminary number of seats that is awarded to that particular list.
  3. The lists will then be ranked according to the remaining fractions of a seat that they would be awarded. The list with the largest fraction will then be awarded one additional seat. This will be repeated until all the seats have been awarded to party lists.

While this method may seem complicated, it is in fact not as complex as it seems. The following example will demonstrate how this method works in practice.


Total number of votes: 1 million

  • List A – 400,000 votes
  • List B – 350,000 votes
  • List C – 200,000 votes
  • List D – 40,000 votes
  • List E – 10,000 votes
  1. The total number of votes each list receives is divided by the total number of votes cast. This produces the resulting fractions: List A (0.4), List B (0.35), List C (0.2), List D (0.04), List E (0.01).
  2. These fractions are then multiplied by 27: List A (10.8), List B (9.45), List C (5.4), List D (1.08), List E (0.27). This translates into the following preliminary seat tally: List A (10), List B (9), List C (5), List D (1), and List E (no seats). This means that 25 out of 27 seats are allocated to lists, with two that remain unassigned.
  3. These two remaining seats are allocated in the order of the size of the fractional seats that each list would have been awarded, until all the seats have been distributed. This means that 1 additional seat is awarded to List A, because it has the largest fraction (0.8), and another seat is awarded to List B, with the second largest fraction (0.45).

This results in the following final allocation of seats for party lists:

  • List A – 11 seats
  • List B – 10 seats
  • List C – 5 seats
  • List D – 1 seat
  • List E – no seats.

District Seats (108 seats) – UPDATED

These seats are elected from 45 electoral districts, which vary greatly both in terms of population and in terms of the number of MPs they elect to parliament, and many areas that are historically loyal to the monarchy are overrepresented. The smallest districts elect one MP each, and the largest district, which is the First Electoral District in Balqa, elects seven MPs. The seats that are reserved for minority groups are assigned to certain districts, with the exception of the bedouin MPs, who are elected from three Bedouin districts which each elect three MPs.

The district seat MPs are elected using the single nontransferable vote system. In single-member districts the candidate who receives the most votes is elected. In a multi-member district  the number of MPs elected depends on the number of seats the district is allocated. For example, in the First District of Amman, which elects five MPs, the top five candidates will be elected to parliament.

The one exception to this is in districts where seats are reserved for minorities. In a seat such as the First Electoral District of Karak, which elects two Muslim MPs and one Christian MP, the top two Muslim candidates will be elected, as will the top Christian candidate. Voters – regardless of religious affiliation – can vote for whichever candidate they choose to support in these districts. In addition, Christian and Circassian voters who live in districts without a Christian or Circassian reserved seat can register to vote in a district that has a reserved seat provided that the district is located in the same governorate where they live.

In the previous election, there were “virtual districts” in each constituency, which meant that voters could vote in only one “virtual district” although they could choose which candidate to vote for regardless of where in the district they lived. These virtual districts were abolished by the electoral reform that was passed last year.

The following section is breakdown of the district seats by location.

Amman (Capital, Central Jordan)

The Amman governorate elects 25 MPs from seven districts. The Amman governorate has a total population of approximately 2.4 million in the 2011 census, meaning each MP represents 96,000 residents. Out of 25 MPs, there are 22 Muslim seats, 2 Circassian/Chechen seats, and 1 Christian seat. One of the Circassian seats was moved from the third district to the sixth district, causing controversy among some in the community who were upset by the move.

Balqaa (Central)

Balqaa elects 10 MPs from four districts, including 8 Muslim MPs and 2 Christian MPs. The governorate has a total population of approximately 419,000, meaning that each MP represents about 41,900 residents.

Madaba (Central)

Madaba elects 4 MPs from two electoral districts, including 3 Muslim seats and 1 Christian seat. The governorate has a population of approximately 156,000 residents, with each MP representing approximately 39,000 residents.

Zarqa (Central)

Zarqa elects 11 MPs from four districts, including 9 Muslim MPs, 1 Christian MP, and 1 Circassian/Chechen MP. The governorate has a total population of approximately 931,000, meaning that each MP represents approximately 85,000 residents.

Aljoun (North)

Aljoun elects 4 MPs from two electoral districts, including 3 Muslim seats and 1 Christian seat. The governorate has a total population of 144,000 residents, with each MP representing approximately 36,000 residents.

Irbid (North)

Irbid elects 17 MPs from nine electoral districts, including 16 Muslim MPs and one Christian MP. The governorate has a total population of approximately 1.1 million, with each MP representing approximately 69,000 residents.

Jerash (North)

Jerash elects 4 MPs from a single electoral district, all of which are Muslim seats. The governorate has a total of 188,000 residents, meaning that each MP represents approximately 47,000 residents.

Mafraq (North)

Mafraq elects 4 MPs from one electoral district, all of which are Muslim seats. The governorate has a population of approximately 179,000, meaning each MP represents approximately 45,000 residents.

It should be noted that this figure does not include the 3 Bedouin seats in the Northern Bedouin District, which are elected separately, although the district is located within this governorate. If these are included then the total number of seats from this governorate would increase to 7, but to avoid double counting these seats will be outlined below.

Aqaba (South)

Aqaba elects 2 MPs from a single electoral district, both of which are Muslim seats. The governorate has a population of approximately 136,000, with each MP representing 68,000.

Karak (South)

Karak elects 10 MPs from six districts, including 8 Muslim MPs and 2 Christian MPs. The governorate has a total population of approximately 244,000, meaning each MP represents approximately 24,400 residents.

Maan (South)

Maan elects 4 MPs from three districts, all of which are Muslim seats. The governorate has a total population of approximately 119,000, meaning each MP represents approximately 30,000 residents.

Tafila (South)

Tafila elects 4 MPs from two electoral districts, all of which are Muslim seats. The governorate has a population of approximately 88,000, with each MP representing approximatley 22,000 residents.

Bedouin Seats – UPDATED

There are a total of 9 seats reserved for Bedouin, which are divided into three Bedouin constituencies: Northern Bedouin, Central Bedouin, and Southern Bedouin. Each of these constituencies elects 3 MPs. The Northern Bedouin District is located within Mafraq governorate. The Central Bedouin district consists of parts of Amman governorate in the fourth electoral district. The Southern Bedouin District consists of parts of Aqaba and Maan governorates.

Bedouin districts are different from those which have seats reserved for the Christian or Circassian minorities. In those districts, voters are free to vote for any candidate they choose to support – for example, Muslim voters can vote for a Christian candidate if they choose to do so, and vice versa. In the three bedouin districts, the electoral law states which families are entitled to participate in electing MPs from each of the three bedouin districts. Members of these families are entitled to vote (and compete for seats in parliament) only in the bedouin district to which their family is assigned.

It should be noted that there are also three seats reserved for Bedouin women, which are included as part of the quota system.

Women’s Quota Seats (15 seats, including 3 reserved for Bedouin Women)

This election there are a total of 15 seats reserved for female candidates, including 3 that are reserved for Bedouin women. Women running for parliament do not campaign for these seats specifically, as they instead run in their districts. Each of the 12 governorates as well as each of the 3 bedouin districts is assigned one female quota seat.

In each governorate, the female candidate who receives the highest proportion of the vote in their district without being elected outright (but not the greatest number of votes, which is important because these districts have different populations) is awarded the female quota seat for that governorate. Prior to the electoral reform law passed last year, there were 12 seats reserved for women, one from each governorate. The electoral reform law added three additional seats for bedouin women, allocating one female quota seat to the female candidate receiving the highest proportion of votes (without being elected outright) in each of the three bedouin districts.

If a female candidate is elected outright then the quota seats would be assigned to other female candidates. In 2010 there were 12 quota seats, but a total of 13 women were elected to parliament because one candidate in Amman was able to get elected outright.

In London, King Abdullah Talks About Reform. In Jordan He Jails Protesters

King Abdullah concluded his visit to the UK by saying that reform in Jordan is proceeding “strongly and steadily.” When one reads what he talked about and notes the sophistication of many in the audience, it leads me to wonder what was going through the minds of many of them. The event’s attendees included people from the media, politics, and other fields – and surely at least some of them are familiar with King Abdullah’s history of promises for reform that were made and then just as quickly broken. Perhaps he likes going to events like this because the reception he gets abroad is likely better than the one he would get at home.

He talked about the upcoming elections on January 23rd as though the boycott by the opposition and an unjust electoral law maintaining highly unequal district sizes for most of the seats simply don’t exist. A parliament elected in that manner isn’t progress, because politicians from the smaller constituencies will owe their election to the status quo and its difficult to envision them wanting to try and change it. He claims to be implementing reform even as the electoral law creates a natural base of lawmakers who would have a vested interest in opposing it.

Worst of all, he said these words about progress even as the regime continues to hold detainees from the protests in November. Many of the 113 who were scheduled to be released have not been freed yet, and the regime is refusing to release 13 of the detainess who it says were gulity of vandalism and “criminal conspiracy.” Among those still in custody is Emad Abu Hattab along with numerous other Muslim Brotherhood figures figures from the Muslim Brotherhood, which was why Islamist protesters were prominent in protests on Friday across Jordan calling for the regime to free the remaining detainees.

If the elections are being boycotted by the opposition, is that “steady and smooth” progress? If criticizing the King or participating in protests can land you in prison, is that “steady and smooth” progress? Reform is not merely the regime agreeing to certain changes in order to retain power, it’s final destination (indeed, it has one) is a government that is chosen by a parliament freely elected by its citizens who can express their wishes and criticize anyone. That’s real reform. That’s progress.

Update 2: Kuwait’s Constitution: A Contested Anniversary

Update 2 (November 11th, 7:45pm): The turnout for protests in Kuwait was large, with at least 50,000 coming out to oppose the electoral law on the anniversary of the constitution, according to those who were there.

Perhaps in an attempt to distract from the protest held on the anniversary, the fireworks display organized by the government to celebrate the anniversary set a Guinness World Record for the largest fireworks display.

Update 1 (November 10th): The Emir gave a speech today in which he commemorated the constitution. He said that it was a “robust guarantee of the viability of the state and the vivacity of the society.” These words are just that – words – and they have little meaning coming from the Emir who provoked the current demonstrations by issuing a decree unilaterally changing the way that elections are held.

This Sunday, November 11th, 2012 is the fiftieth anniversary of Kuwait’s constitution, which was issued by a decree from then-Emir . The opposition is planning to hold a joint demonstration on the anniversary to protest the Emir’s decree changing the electoral law. By holding a demonstration on the anniversary of the constitution the opposition is making a bold statement that the anniversary should be an occasion to protest the government’s actions that threaten the relative freedom that exists in Kuwait now. As of yet, these rallies have not called for radial change or the overthrow of the regime, but as we have mentioned before, if the regime continues responding to peaceful rallies with stun grenades and tear gas it is questionable how long this will remain the case.

The government has also sought to invoke the constitution in defense of its actions, and prominent figures have issued statements praising the constitution even as the government takes steps to undermine its true meaning. The Emir, Sheikh Sabah Al-Ahmad Al-Jaber Al-Sabah said recently - at a meeting with the heads of the Army, police, and national guard – that “We are required today to choose between the state of law and constitution… or the path to chaos and undermining constitutional authority.” Yet what is undermining constitutional authority really? The people demanding real reform and democratization? Or a regime which is attempting to change the entire electoral process through a single decree by the Emir?

The National Assembly, (mind you, the same national assembly which was reconvened after the one elected in February was undemocratically dissolved) has for its part announced it plans to hold exhibits next week in commemoration of the fiftieth anniversary of the constitution. Other figures within the government have spoken up as well. In an article in Kuwait Times, Sheikh Sabah Jaber Al-Ali Al-Sabah, Director General of the Ports Authoritypraised the constitution, saying – even as the government has vowed to crack down on protests – that “Kuwaitis, since their early history, have been embracing consultation, democracy and popular participation as principle for life and joint action.” This statement is true – they have been embracing the constitution, democracy, and popular participation as principles for life and joint action. Indeed, it’s the government that’s been resisting these principles, both recently and indeed in the past.

The government’s willingness to undermine the constitution when it sees fit is not new, nor are the fundamentally undemocratic elements of the way Kuwait is goverened. In 1976 and 1986 the National Assembly was suspended, and the second time was restored after a determined pro-democracy movement and the experience of the Iraqi occupation, which unified the Kuwaiti people in resistance to the occupiers, and parliament was restored after the 1992 elections.

Interestingly, this isn’t even the first time that the government has tried to manipulate the electoral process by changing the way that elections are held. In 1980 the government did something similar to what the Emir’s decree did recently – it increased the number of districts from 10 to 50, with each district electing one member instead of five.

What is most remarkable and what deserves the greatest recognition on the anniversary on Sunday is the enduring democratic spirit of the Kuwaiti people. They have proven time and again their willingness to resist attempts by the government to limit their rights and manipulate the rules to its advantage. No doubt that spirit will be on display once again as the people come together this Sunday to demand reform and true democracy.