Palestine was very much present in the latest elections of the 17th Jordanian parliament. But it wasn’t the way you think.
In Jordan, Palestine is a consensus issue. Very few people differ on the need to end the Israeli occupation and setting up a Palestinian state. The Palestinian role in Jordan’s elections has much more to do with representation rather than political platforms.
Ever since the creation of the modern Kingdom of Jordan under the leadership of King Hussein, Palestinians have been an integral part of the country. Palestinians have been part of the Kingdom ever since the Transjordan Emirate was made into the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan in 1946. Two years later, and as a result of the 1948 war and the nakba (catastrophe), a wave of Palestinians from the center of historic Palestine sought refuge in Jordan. In 1952, Jordan officially annexed the West Bank to the Kingdom, giving all those living in both banks of the Jordan River full citizenship. Jordan continued to have a direct role in the West Bank, even after losing the territory in the June 1967 war. However, in 1988 shortly after the first Palestinian intifada, King Hussein cut off administrative relations with the West Bank, thus formally restricting the Kingdom to the territory and the people living on the east of the Jordan River.
Jordanian parliamentary life, which had been suspended since 1967, was revived in 1989 with a new redistricting of the country, largely favoring locations and communities outside the major populated cities where Jordanians of Palestinian origin resided. As a result of this sort of gerrymandering, Jordanian parliaments have never included more than 15% member who were of Palestinian origin. This under representation has often been cited as a source of displeasure and a potential political time bomb in the country.
When the Arab Spring erupted in Tunisa, Egypt and Yemen, many expected Jordan to be next in line. Some protests indeed took place, but the one community that generally stayed at home was the underrepresented Jordanians of Palestinian origin.
Jordan’s King Abdullah II responded to the popular protests by allowing constitutional changes, and accepting the weakening of the one vote electoral system that heavily favored Jordanian tribes and rural communities. The 120-member parliament was expanded to include three more seats for women and 27 nationwide seats. The voters were for the first time allowed to vote both for their local representative as well as a second ballot for national parties and lists. While the number of seats allotted for the national lists was small, it triggered a nationwide response. Competing for the 27 new seats were 61 lists comprising of 823 candidates, while less than 700 candidates competed for the remaining 123 seats.
The introduction of nationwide seats meant that the large Jordanian-Palestinian community has once again become relevant. Whereas in rural areas candidates running for local seats often need only a few thousand votes to reach parliament, the nationwide seats require tens of thousands of seats just to gain a single seat. And the only community that able to provide tens of thousands of voters is the Jordanian-Palestinian community.
Amman and Karak-based political leaders were suddenly visiting major Palestinian communities such as Zarqa or the Baka’a refugee camp, seeking candidates and supporters. Lists were quickly established with alternative candidates from either of the two major communities that represent modern Jordan. Alliances were created, not only for the nationwide lists, but also for local lists as party leaders were forced to create alliances and exchange pledges of support for local candidates for support for national lists.
By the time the elections were over, Jordanians had elected a record number of Jordanians of Palestinian origin. The 30 MPs represent a fifth of the new parliament, up from 19 in the previous parliament, which was made up of 120 seats. Furthermore, among the top three lists, five out of the seven members were Jordanian Palestinians. The top two lists winning three and two seats consecutively were headed by Jordanians of Palestinian origin.
While regional issues, including the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, didn’t feature prominently in most candidates and lists platforms, domestic issues including that of citizenship did. A number of winning candidates and lists had pledged to push for Jordanian women married to non-Jordanians be given the right to grant their children citizenship. Khalil Attitya, an MP of Palestinian origin running on a local seat in the highly populated fourth district, received the highest number of votes of any candidate topping 19,000. Attitya, who has been vocally opposed to the way Jordanian officials have been dealing with citizenship issues, ran an anti-Israel campaign where he burnt an Israeli flag inside parliament.
But while Attitya tried to feature his strong anti-Israel position, one Jordanian candidate tried to ride the anti-Israel wave with little success. A candidate from the Madaba region, Shibley Haddad, an East Bank Jordanian Christian, issued a political program saying he would discover oil in Jordan, would pay the country’s debt from the pockets of the corrupt and will liberate Palestine from the seat to the river. Shibley’s campaign became a national laughing stock and although his Facebook page received 30,000 likes, he failed dismally in the election and was only able to muster 20 votes.
While the 17th parliament will feature greater representation for the Palestinian community, a unique and important detail is that Jordanian Palestinians have for the first time not made it to parliament on the coat tails of the Muslim Brotherhood. The Islamic Action Front and a few small secular groups boycotted the elections, allowing Jordanian Palestinians to reach parliament on their own and without the political baggage of the Muslim Brotherhood.
Daoud Kuttab is a contributing writer for Al-Monitor's Palestine Pulse. A Palestinian journalist and media activist, he is a former Ferris Professor of journalism at Princeton University and is currently the director general of Community Media Network, a not-for-profit organization dedicated to advancing independent media in the Arab region. He tweets @daoudkuttab.