Youth vote a tough sell in Jordan

A government campaign launched in July seems to be having little effect in getting Jordan's youth to the polls.

Jordanian youth register for new IDs at a mobile registration centre at Jordan University in Amman. The IDs are necessary to vote in parliamentary elections.
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AMMAN// Fadi Hadidi is going to vote in the November elections, but he doubts that the next lower house of parliament will be better than its predecessor. The government launched a campaign in July designed to get young people to participate in the election and resist the temptation to vote along tribal affiliation. But Mr Hadidi and others are not optimistic that their votes will have much effect.

The campaign promises a better parliament but "I doubt it will happen since parliament's reputation is already tainted", said Mr Hadidi, 23, a chemistry student at the University of Jordan in Amman. "Still, I want to vote because I want to see a change taking place." He wants the parliament to focus more on problems that affect students. He said transportation is costly for students, for example. But some students were not interested in voting.

"I am not going to vote," said Sara Ahmed, a fellow University of Jordan student studying English. "Each candidate wants to serve his own interests and little has been done for the country." Juhayna Halayqeh, 21, who studies Arabic at the university, said she too will not vote. "My vote will not change anything and we haven't seen a candidate talking about programmes that concern us such as facilitating students' enrolment in universities," she said. "We, as youth, need jobs too."

The government's campaign is called "your vote counts". Purple posters were hung across streets and at universities urging young adults to register and vote for qualified candidates rather than members of their tribes. It also extended voter registration another two weeks in July. The Jordanian prime minster, Samir Rifai, who spearheaded the campaign, visited several universities and urged students to elect a parliament that can act as a government watchdog.

"Your vote is instrumental in electing parliamentarians who are capable of achieving your hopes and aspirations," he told students last month at Balqa Applied University in Al Salt. He even tweeted about his visits to Jordanian University for Science and Technology (Just) and Yarmouk University. "Just visited Just. Was great interacting with the students who are very energised to be active in the next elections," he wrote.

The government was pleased with the campaign. Of the 373,000 citizens who turned 18 between the 2007 elections and the start of this year, 243,555 registered. The figure raises the number of eligible voters to more about 2.6 million, or about 70 per cent of eligible voters, according to the Civil Status and Passports Department. However, it remains a challenge to change voters' behaviour. A temporary election law adopted in May is not helping because it retained the one-man, one-vote system that critics say encourages tribal voting.

Proponents of the new election law say some changes are positive. For example, the law raised the number of seats to 120 from 110 and doubled the number of parliamentary seats reserved for women to 12. But those changes are insignificant, critics say. The fact remains, analysts said, that people will continue to vote for a fellow tribesman. "There is some kind of political apathy that has been accumulating in the past four to five years," said Mohammed al Masri, a researcher at the centre of strategic studies at the University of Jordan. "Youth is one major component that was absent and that's why the government is targeting them.

"The existing election law will not change voting behaviour that is based on voting for the tribe as well as voting for members of parliament who can provide wasta and services. If the government wants to see a change taking place, we need new politics, and the campaign is not enough." Therefore, it is not uncommon to hear students who say they will vote for a tribe member. "My ballot will be for the tribe," said Aseel al Omran, 20, a University of Jordan student who will vote for the first time in November. "One cannot vote out of the boundaries of the tribe. There is a consensus among the tribe to choose the candidate and the person you know is better than the one you don't."

Iman Kreishan, 22, who is studying architecture at the University of Jordan, said she too will vote for the tribe. "I come from a big tribe," she said. smaayeh@the