University of Jordan Elections Highlight National Political Challenges

By Natalie Robinson

In April 2018, a brawl broke out at the University of Jordan between two tribes over allegations of voter fraud during student elections, resulting in one student’s death and the expulsion of 39 others. Violence erupting over student elections might seem like a strange occurrence to a western audience, but Jordan’s university elections hold symbolic meaning for candidates and supporters alike, and they have become a proxy for the challenges facing the country’s electoral and parliamentary system.   

“Problems arise between groups during the election season because every powerful tribe or political group wants their sons to be elected,” said Wafaa, a former UJ student.

For its part, the University of Jordan administration stresses the connection between the student and national political processes: “The university continues to strengthen the democratic structure by conducting student elections, whose essence lies in the consecration of national identity and making room for Jordanian youth, especially the university youth, which contributes to political development, progress, and prosperity.” 

2019 election posters at the University of Jordan. Source: Facebook, al-Nashama Bloc

2019 election posters at the University of Jordan. Source: Facebook, al-Nashama Bloc

Every year, over 650 political candidates campaign to fill a total of 106 seats at UJ. The competition between the tribal representative party Al-Nashama and the Islamist-directed party Ahl al-Hemmeh is always close, as these two parties compete to win the majority of both college and university level seats. Throughout the campaign season, student candidates organize events, distribute flyers, and proudly hang campaign posters, while basic funding for campaigns is supposed to be provided by the university. 

Another UJ graduate named Sara notes, “I think that these student elections are a representation of what will happen when students leave university—this is a test or model for reality.” 

But as a test for national political life, student elections present a host of challenges, chief among them voting irregularities, outside funding for candidates, and the interference of political forces.   

Election Process Irregularities

Wafaa stresses that “there are problems with the student elections because they have transformed into something that furthers political, tribal, and social agendas.”

2019 rally for Ahl al-Hemmeh. Source: Facebook, Ahl al-Hemmeh

2019 rally for Ahl al-Hemmeh. Source: Facebook, Ahl al-Hemmeh

“During my time with Ahl al-Hemmeh, they were continuously sent money by the Muslim Brotherhood, and many of the brochures they use for activities and pictures are printed for free in printing shops owned by members of the Brotherhood,” an ex-member of Ahl al-Hemmeh told the Jordan Times in April 2019.

Sara notes, “in the case of the Muslim Brotherhood candidates and the tribal candidates, students are chosen from these groups to run,” rather than winning nominations on their own merits.  

Lack of student confidence is reflected in low turnout: in the 2019 spring contests, voter turnout was expected to reach 60 percent, yet only 45 percent of the student body voted

Along with other students interviewed, Wafaa expressed little confidence in the student election process, noting, “in my four years at the University of Jordan, I only voted once for one of my friends in my college…I did not vote in any other election since I knew there was bribery and corruption, especially from groups outside the university.”

The presence of “bribery and corruption” in the elections might be due to the fact that becoming a student representative at UJ is advantageous for both the elected student and their supporters.       

Power and Prestige

Once elected, student union representatives are meant to actively work with the university administration on the needs of the student body; however, students interviewed for this piece said that representatives in the student union rarely enact change. 

“Many student candidates who become student representatives have no desire to actually help the students or solve problems,” said Wafaa.

Instead, like national elections in Jordan, student elections are important for advancing the agendas, and bolstering the perceived power of tribal and Islamic factions.  

“The Islamists want to have power because they have specific beliefs that they want to preserve in the university… every group has their own political agendas that are very important to them, thus there are problems and tensions that are bigger than the students,” said Sara.

Ahl al-Hemmeh candidates. Source: Facebook, Ahl al-Hemmeh

Ahl al-Hemmeh candidates. Source: Facebook, Ahl al-Hemmeh

Another former UJ graduate said that, “often parties (the Islamist or tribal parties) with similar agendas will form coalitions during the election so they are able to form a majority and win the most seats.” 

Since the lifting of the ban on political parties in 1992, King Abdullah II of Jordan has actively advocated for more political parties in the Jordanian political sphere, yet tribal society presents challenges to introducing political parties not connected to tribal bases. 

A former student-candidate for the 2019 student elections emphasizes that, “the student elections in general at the University of Jordan are built on the tribes rather than the popularity of individual candidates.” Often students hailing from influential tribes are selected to run for university-level seats, with pressure to join the tribal Al-Nashama party. 

This former student-candidate notes that, “the Nashama Party asked me more than once to run for a university level seat under their campaign, but I refused to join them despite the intense pressure,” because, “overall, I was not interested in representing just the tribes, I believed in diversity and I wanted to represent a religiously and ethnically diverse set of people.” 

A Proxy for Political Sentiment

The national electoral system in Jordan faces similar problems related to the importance of tribal identity, to say nothing of irregularities in the voting process. Many of the governorates with the highest concentration of tribal, pro-government residents receive about double the number of representatives in relation to their actual population.

By contrast, “the country’s major cities, which contain the largest populations of Jordanians of Palestinian descent as well as Muslim Brotherhood supporters, were significantly underrepresented,” receiving almost half of the votes they should in accordance with population figures, according to a 2016 Middle East Institute report.  

Political parties struggle to attract support that is not rooted in the tribal system. In the 2016 national elections, only 18 percent of candidates were affiliated with political parties outside tribal groups. The Muslim Brotherhood affiliated Islamic Action Front (ISF), considered to be the most-well known and organized political party in Jordan, won 15 seats, making up only 11.5 percent of the lower house seats. 

In a society with strong historical and foundational ties to the tribal system, the development and success of independent political parties in national elections in Jordan will take time and concerted effort. Perhaps addressing the challenges to Jordan’s student election process could be an important step towards nationwide political reforms, considering that elections at the university level are instrumental in encouraging either political activism, or apathy in the college-educated population.

Natalie Robinson is a Navanti analyst who works primarily on Yemen and Syria.