Jordanian tribes offered chance to gain power in municipal elections

More than a thousand municipal council representatives and 106 mayors are to be elected.

Jordanian flag 260 (photo credit: REUTERS/Majed Jaber)
Jordanian flag 260
(photo credit: REUTERS/Majed Jaber)
AMMAN -- Like a trail of ants, scores of young men walk into a tribal gathering in the village of Mubis, north of the capital, carrying large trays of the traditional Jordanian lamb and rice dish called mansaf.
The food precedes an important meeting for the tribes and their allies to agree on the candidate for this year's municipal elections, to be held on August 27. More than a thousand municipal council representatives and 106 mayors are to be elected.
"Mansaf is considered fundamental in tribal gatherings. It helps soothe the atmosphere and ease tension," joked one participant as he dug into his hot plate of the stuff.
The polls come at a difficult time for Jordan, as tribal allegiances take over in a country flooded by refugees escaping wars in Syria and Iraq. There has also been rising tension among some of the kingdom's rival tribes.
While Jordan has escaped the violence and instability that gripped neighbors Syria, Iraq, and Egypt, there are fears of a spillover into Jordan. The municipal elections can help unite rival tribes and stabilize the country. The municipalities fuel urban development, and the choice of mayor is important, especially in the capital Amman.
King Abdullah is watching the elections carefully, although has not interfered. However the Islamist movement has decided to boycott the elections, saying the election laws are rigged against them. The Islamists are the main opposition party in Jordan. They have also been weakened by the overthrow of Muslim Brotherhood leader Mohammed Morsi in Egypt.
Jordan’s elections are being held in the midst of difficult economic conditions, rising poverty and unemployment as well as growing tribal tension.
Back at the tribal gathering, there is a disagreement over a candidate. "Every time elections approach, we have the same atmosphere. People meet to decide who they will vote for and everybody in the tribe abides by that choice," said Ebrahem Salaman, a 49-year-old real estate agent and supporter of one candidate.
At this meeting, four candidates have been proposed but no decision reached yet. As discussions grow more heated voices of the participants become louder. For now, tribal members appeared to disagree.
"Families in the tribe take turns running for the polls, but one big family wants to jump the queue, which created a problem," Salman told The Media Line. Competence, however, is not the only factor to consider when choosing nominees.
"The government and particularly the security forces also have their say on who can run, and from which tribe," Abdellah Weirekat, a former candidate, told The Media Line.
The Mubis-style meeting is common in Jordan, where tribal allegiances have often proven more important than political ideologies or nationalism.
The tribes have often showed allegiance to the monarchy on the basis of mutual interest, whereby they obtain important government and army posts in exchange for supporting the Hashemite throne. Political analyst Noufal Abu Sbeitan believes the rising influence of the tribes, coupled with widespread claims of election corruption, played a role in creating growing apathy about the polls.
"Voter turnout is almost 25% in our big cities. People don't trust this process and believe the security agencies continue to control the election's outcome," Sbeitan told The Media Line.
Figures from the previous election in 2010, however, show that turnout in rural towns and villages – where tribes are influential – reached more than 60 percent, he added.
Successive governments have been widely accused of rigging municipal and parliamentary elections to favor supporters from the tribal community. Many Jordanians believe the entire process to be corrupt.
Amer Bani Amar, president of the civil alliance to monitor elections, said tens of thousands of fake identification cards are believed to be in the hands of candidates and their supporters.
He said the government must use ink to mark voters after they cast their ballots to help prevent against fraud. "We are facing the high possibility that the election fraud in 2007 and 2010 could be repeated this year. During those elections some individuals had more than 50 ID cards that showed the same face but a different name. Those people would move from one polling station to another to vote for the same candidate," Bani Amar declared.
Interior and Municipal Affairs Minister Hussein Al-Majali told a recent press conference that the government will not use ink as a way of reducing the cost of holding the polls.
Using those identification systems would cost the cash-strapped government $70 million, while it has allocated only $7million for the polls. Most analysts believe tribal candidates will dominate the elections.
"Tribes have proven to be strong. They also have the support of the authorities, who send the army to vote for their allies," a Western diplomat told The Media Line.
A total of 3,000 candidates will be running for a spot on the municipal councils, including 500 women.
In fact with less than three weeks before the polling begins, 68 women have already been announced as members of the new councils because of the quota system which allows them to run unopposed. Women candidates see their participation in municipal elections as a step in the right direction.
"The society is not ready to accept women as partners in the political process," Samya Al Mubarak, a woman candidate for a spot on the Balqa governorate's municipal council, told The Media Line. "It is up to us to show them we can make a difference."
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