AMMAN - Subhi Khatib is not an activist, nor does he have a political preference. But the 45-year old Palestinian refugee nevertheless works around the clock during Jordan’s election period, brokering votes for candidates.
Khatib’s job is to locate voters from some of the 13 Palestinian refugee camps spread throughout the kingdom and sell their votes to office-seekers running in large cities.
Jordanian law allows votes to be transferred from one location to another under strict conditions, but vote-brokering is prohibited and punishable by up to two years in prison. Nevertheless, no one has ever been convicted of the practice since the law was passed and circumventing the permitted procedures is not at all uncommon. Khatib explained that his clients are typically businessmen or individuals from the security apparatus linked to authorities who are seeking to support their favored candidates or oust those candidates’ unwanted opponents in some hotly contested districts.
"Palestinian refugee camps are seen as gold mines for votes. There are tens of thousands of votes up for grab,” said Khatib, as he sifted through a list of telephone contacts. “There are middlemen in various camps who can bring me votes whenever I need them. Some of them do not even buy the votes, but herd relatives to me – most of whom are women who are poor and uneducated,” he told The Media Line.
Jordan is scheduled to hold elections for parliament on January 23, under an amended law. The revised legislation empowers tribes loyal to the royal family and affords only minimal representation to Jordanians of Palestinian origin who have full Jordanian citizenship.
In the squalid Baqaa refugee camp, home to nearly 300,000 refugees, residents show little interest in reform protests that swept through the main cities across Jordan. Residents of refugee camps opted to maintain a low profile ever since the “Arab Spring” reached Jordan, as leaders of the Palestinian community worry their camps are not politically protected.
"We have no role in this political drama. We worry about a tough response by the security forces if we take to the streets to demand reforms,” said Helmi Samer, a camp activist who has been lobbying for an elections boycott.
"We are considered Jordanians only on election day. For rest of the year, we are treated like [the] Palestinian refugees [we are] who have no political rights,” he says, noting that Palestinian camps housing nearly one million residents are represented by only four seats in the parliament, while a small town like Ma’an, with a population of merely 50,000 people, has five representatives in the 122-seat parliament.
Since the 1971 civil war in between Palestinian factions and the Jordanian army, authorities in Amman have systematically denied major government positions to Jordanians of Palestinian origin and have restricted the “east-bankers” from enlistment in the army and police. Samer believes the Palestinians continue to pay the price for the civil war, even until now.
“There is a wide sense of political apathy in the refugee camps,” said Samer. “People do not care about the parliament, which has been lackluster in performance and did little to help them improve their living conditions,” he said.
Former parliamentarian Mohammad Dahrawee lashed out at the government for approving the elections law, which he says grossly under-represents Jordanian Palestinians. “The Palestinian camps are being politically marginalized. They have the right to be part of the political picture -- not observers and voters,” he said. “Justice means that the electoral system is based on population density, not on geography. The elections law reaffirms that there are two levels of citizens and our ambition to reach justice is hampered by this law that needs reform,” he told The Media Line.
Elections are boycotted by most opposition parties, including the Islamist movement and a national coalition of opposition parties, an umbrella of seven leftist parties. In the battle with the Islamist movement following opposition’s decision to boycott the elections, authorities have been reportedly utilizing connections to Fatah and other Palestinian factions to secure higher voter turn-outs.
Several Palestinian leaders from outside of Jordan, including Rajab Kadoumi, a senior Fatah leader, have held meetings in Baqaa refugee camps urging community leaders take part in the voting.
Other Fatah figures held similar meetings in the Wehdat camp near Amman, the Zarqa camp and other areas with high concentrations of Palestinian refugees.
Researcher Kamal Hudeib said refugee camps are looked at as major vote-troves for influential candidates from outside the camps, including government-linked candidates, businessmen and political parties.
“Refugee camps have become a market for [the sale of] votes,” according to Hudeib. He told The Media Line that, “Several candidates have been trying to transfer voters from the camps to their districts.” For most of the year, vote-facilitator Khatib is jobless. He spends his time in coffee shops, sports clubs and at social gatherings in order to meet people and expand his network of potential voters. Then, when election fever hits the kingdom, Khatib becomes as busy as a bee, moving from one camp to another, meeting with scores of candidates while trying to cash-in on what he sees as a spending-bonanza by candidates.
"All eyes are now on refugee camps -- not to help improve conditions, but to obtain the votes of their residents," said Khatib.
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