Jordanian Electoral Reform

by Joshua Tucker on August 19, 2011 · 1 comment

in Campaigns and elections,Comparative Politics,Institutions

We are pleased to welcome what we hope will be the first of many guest posts from David Jandura, a researcher at an international democracy assistance organization based in Washington, D.C, where he is also finishing his M.A. in Democracy and Governance at Georgetown University. David blogs about Elections, Party Systems, and the Middle East at Ahwa Talk. The following piece originally appeared on that blog here.

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Jordan’s king (and fellow Hoya) Abdullah II has thrown his support behind proposed changes to the country’s constitution the other day. The proposal is the latest change in a series of reforms that have yet to become law. In May, the government announced plans to do away with it’s current mess of an electoral system and move to one that uses some sort of party lists. Most sources I’ve talked to say that the plan is indeed to move to party list PR, although the details haven’t been worked out yet. Whatever the details are, however, it would be hard to not improve the system Jordan has now.

Jordan currently uses a variant of a Single non-Transferable Voting (SNTV) system, which is generally known as the worst electoral system out there. Abandoned by Japan, and currently used in Afghanistan, SNTV has candidates running as individuals (not party lists) in multi-member districts. Unlike Block voting, however, voters only get one vote. So, for example, in a district with ten open seats, I get to vote for one person. The top ten candidates with the most votes would then fill the seats. One of the most salient effects of these rules is to weaken political parties (although it theoretically is fairly proportional). This is because SNTV makes effective coordination nearly impossible, as parties would have to essentially run their own candidates against each other in every district.

SNTV is odd enough as it is, but Jordan decided to go a step further in the strange rules department when they instituted their new laws for the 2010 election. The system remained SNTV (divided into 45 single- and multi-member constituencies) with the added confusion that these districts would be now further divided into virtual or “ghost districts.” What is a ghost district you ask? Well it’s simply a district that only the candidate can see…..Maybe that requires more explanation.

When registering for the election, candidates must declare which virutal district they want to run in. So, for example, if there are ten open seats (all representing the exact same people mind you), a candidate must choose to run in seat… lets say 7. That candidate will now be running only against every other candidate who chose the same district. So now we have ten separate, First Past the Post, winner-take-all seats, all representing the same constituents. The voter, however, still only gets to vote for one candidate. This creates another coordination problem, as naturally, any candidate only wants to run in the easiest virtual district (the one with the least and weakest opponents). Which district is the easiest, however, completely depends on the decisions of every other candidate, all of whom are also attempting to achieve the same outcome, and all also with the same lack of information necessary to do so.

If that isn’t clear, lets use the US as an example. Lets say you live, like me, in northern Virginia. Instead of being only able to vote in CD-8, you can choose to cast one vote for any candidate running for US House in the entire state. They will all be representing you anyway. The candidates, though, still have to choose which Congressional district they want to run in. Sound like a good idea?

I never really figured out what the intentions for the virtual districts were, but my guess is it was a way for the King to throw coordination issues down to the local tribes, while keeping them happy by weakening political parties. A system like this would have forced local elites to make pre-election bargains with one another so they could work out who ran in each district.

Whether I’m right or wrong, I’m pretty confident the virtual districts weren’t designed with the intention of making the country more democratic. Hopefully the new reforms will create conditions more conducive to the forming of legitimate political parties that provide some sort of democratic accountability to the Jordanian people.

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Cross-posted at Ahwa Talk.

{ 1 comment }

Matthew Shugart August 19, 2011 at 3:14 pm

These “virtual districts”, as I understand from your description, were in fact the actual districts, in terms of the set of candidates one needs to pass in order to win, even if they are hidden in that no one knows which subset of a region’s candidates are in direct competition with one another.

I don’t see how in any sense the system “remained SNTV” if we understand SNTV as a top-M system in which M>1 (where M means, of course, the district magnitude). There must be many cases in which the winners in a “10-seat” district are not actually the top 10 in the whole region. Or did I completely misunderstand something here?

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