Jordan’s new electoral system – the more things change…

By JD Mussel and Henry Schlechta

Jordan held a parliamentary election last month, for the first time under a proportional party-list system. This reform, in line with many previous proposals, replaces the earlier Single Non-Transferable Vote or (mechanically FPTP) pseudo-SNTV (it’s not clear which one was actually used last time around) which at the last election in 2013 was accompanied by a small national list-PR tier.

Reform of the previous single-vote system was a long-running demand of opposition parties, a number of which have taken part in these elections after having repeatedly boycotted them in the past. However, what they may not have noticed (yet) is that the new electoral system may turn out to be remarkably similar to the old SNTV.

A total of 130 non-reserved seats were filled proportionally from open lists of candidates in 23 districts, out of which 9 seats are from 3 parallel Bedouin districts (similar to NZ’s Maori districts) electing 3 seats each. The districts range from 3 to 10 seats, with a median of 4. Spread out among all the districts is a quota for 15 women and (among the non-Bedouin districts) there are quotas for Christians (9 seats) and Circassians/Chechens (3 seats). With more seats allocated to the cities, there seems to be less malapportionment than under the previous system, but it is not clear how much less.

The lists are open, with seats going to candidates with most votes within each list. This was presented as a kind of return to the ostensibly similar multiple non-transferable vote (MNTV) which had existed before the introduction of SNTV: voters have as many votes as there are seats to be filled, and can cast them for a list as a whole or for any number of individual candidates on the list. Candidacies must be as part of lists with at least 3 candidates up to the number of seats available.

Largest-remainder PR and ‘SNTVization’

Now, technically, the system is proportional. However, the apportionment formula is largest remainders, using the Hare quota. The potential problem is that the combination of these features and the open-list aspect may present incentives that roughly approximate SNTV. Larger quotas (the Hare quota is the largest of the commonly used ones) are advantageous to smaller parties: the fewer seats are allocated by quotas, the more seats allocated by remainders. The smaller number of votes required to win a seat by remainder means that smaller parties are able to win these seats. On the other hand, for a large party to win multiple seats, they must fill multiple quotas.

The possibility of getting seats from remainders can encourage large parties to turn themselves into multiple small parties, through running multiple lists and dividing their votes between these lists[1]. Hong Kong represents the best example of this tendency. While on paper it is a party-list PR system with largest-remainder and the Hare quota, the 2012 and 2016 elections saw no ‘list’ win more than one seat. Instead, larger parties like the Democratic Alliance ran multiple lists, and divided their votes between them. If no seats are allocated by quotas, the M-lists with the highest vote are allocated one seat. The effect of this is to create a system approximate to SNTV.

District magnitude does not appear to be an especially important factor in this process, with 5-member districts in Hong Kong and the 100-member nationwide district for the Colombian Senate (up until 2002) both being on paper party-list but effectively acting as SNTV.

Of course, there are other relevant institutional considerations. The new law’s requirement for at least three candidates per list could theoretically limit this tactic, though it could probably still be possible for a list to consist of one politician with public profile and two other ‘decoy’ candidates. It is not clear if there are any legal restrictions on one political party registering multiple lists; however, in the context of an electoral politics where parties are still weak and fragmented (and which was until now dominated by independent politicians), it is unlikely to be difficult to register effectively duplicate lists under similar labels.

Political impact

The results of the election show a continuation of the party fragmentation that existed before; barely any parties won more than one seat in each district. However, fragmentation was occasionally an outcome of the electoral system, as there are a couple of cases where lists that won a single seat received more than double the votes of other winning lists. This would have given them two seats if they had presented two separate lists, at least if they had managed to keep the vote distributed evenly between them. Of course, electoral systems take time in order to affect behaviour; however, it won’t be long before politicians will notice this outcome, and the strategic response would seem to be obvious. Therefore, more than likely, the new party-list system will continue as an obstacle to the development of larger and more cohesive party organizations, despite the fact that it was presented as a reform designed to bolster party-politics.

Hence, it looks like the reform may have been a clever stratagem by the government: it can be presented as an ‘abolition’ of SNTV and ‘return’ to MNTV, yet it will likely retain the incentives caused by SNTV. Or it could have been accidental. Whether or not this was intentional, it would certainly seem advantageous to the King: in public opinion, it enhances the regime’s legitimacy (the best evidence of this being how it brought an end to the Islamist boycott); nonetheless, in reality it will likely continue the previous incentives for fragmentation which weaken the parties (most importantly, the Islamists) and, crucially, the House of Representatives, which needs to remain fragmented for the King to maintain substantial power in what is constitutionally supposed to be a parliamentary system[2].

 


[1] The ideal number of candidates elected from each of these lists is one, since a party can win only one seat by remainder.

[2] There are of course other factors relevant in determining whether or not a given ‘constitutional monarchy’ is more monarchy or more parliamentary democracy (as demonstrated by the recent constitutional amendments giving the King more power over appointments) but hopefully it can be agreed that the crucial factor is whether or not governments are responsible to an elected house of parliament, by which I mean that a prime minister and cabinet can be removed by that house. Jordan’s constitution, at least since 2011, makes the government responsible to the House of Representatives.

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