Apathy spreads before Jordan elections as pandemic stunts campaigning

Jordan’s usually social and lively election campaigns have been heavily trimmed back amid pandemic lockdowns

epa08777425 Placards of candidates are seen on a highway on the outskirt of Amman, Jordan, 27 October 2020. Parliamentary elections are scheduled for 10 of November 2020.  EPA/ANDRE PAIN
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Jordan is nearing its November 10 parliamentary election, facing twin health and economic crises as well as an unexpected third challenge: apathy and disdain for the electoral process.

Often a social affair, campaigning usually includes the gathering of several hundred relatives by candidates, as well as friends, neighbours and undecided voters, in election tents for coffee, dates, and large platters of lamb mansaf.

This year, however, they are taking a very different shape amid weekend curfews and bans on gatherings of more than 20 people – rallies on Facebook live and Zoom, and WhatsApp groups have replaced canvassing.

Although elections have lost some of their flavour, the suspension of tent feasts has made campaigning more affordable, and encouraged a record number of women and young people – who would otherwise be unable to compete with affluent businessmen and sheikhs – to take part.

“The lowered costs of running a campaign remotely is opening the elections up to everyone,” says Karak candidate Samiha Sarayreh, who is running on Jordan’s first all-women electoral list.

According to election officials, 364 women candidates are competing, up 44 per cent from 2016.

Yet some are finding new ways to influence voters. According to the Independent Electoral Commission, charitable associations have been used to call citizens to offer to provide them with “all their needs, and several cases have been referred to the courts.

“People are knocking on my door offering services and food for my vote,” says Manawir, 74, from Amman. “I just want to be left alone.”

Reflecting the deepening economic crisis in a country where unemployment officially stands at 23 per cent, the pandemic has presented the opportunity for some candidates to attempt to win over voters by promising essential items, such as rice, cooking oil, heaters and blankets.

Jordan is battling a wave of up to 3,000 new Covid-19 cases and 40 deaths per day.

The electoral commission says it is working to make to make the chances of virus transmission “negligible” when residents do head out to vote, increasing the number of polling stations and ballot boxes. Twenty-thousand volunteers will provide masks and gloves.

The Islamist-leaning Islah, or Reform, backed by the Muslim Brotherhood’s Islamic Action Front party, has been hit hard by the virus, with several candidates contracting Covid-19.

Last week, a My Homeland candidate died after contracting the virus in his home town.

“The pandemic has been a logistical challenge,” said Badi Al Rafiya, campaign manager for Islah. “You have candidates campaigning while self-isolating and recovering from home and rallies held completely on Zoom. It just isn’t the same connection with voters.”

A number of surveys have show that Jordanians have little regard for parliament, and some, such as businessman Mohammed Assaf, say parliament has become little more than a rubber stamp for royal-appointed governments.

“Why should I vote?” says Mr Assaf, while shopping in central Amman.

“It’s many of the same faces. They have proven time and time again they get into parliament just to help themselves and do nothing for citizens.”

In a survey by the Centre for Strategic Studies in October, 50 per cent of voting-age Jordanians said they either are not or are considering not taking part in elections, with only 17 per cent saying they would definitely cast ballots.

Over 40 per cent said they would not vote because they “have no confidence in parliament,” while 31 per cent said the pandemic would affect their decision over whether to take part.

“The challenge that is even greater than Covid is the lack of enthusiasm among Jordanians towards the elections in general,” said Mr Al Rafiya.

“Parliament’s reputation has plummeted in recent years as it has failed to act as a legislative authority, it is difficult to convince even members of our own party to vote in this year’s elections.”

Even in rural areas and the outer provinces, where families and tribes have consistently come out in droves to elect relatives as a duty to their clan, citizens say there is little appetite for elections.

“With fears of coronavirus and the economic situation, no one is in the mood for elections,” said Mohamed Howeitat, an unemployed university graduate from Maan, 200 kilometres south of Amman.

“We have someone from our family running in the elections, to check it off the list, but no one in my tribe is actively campaigning. I don’t even know how many people are actually planning to vote.”