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The ongoing debate on political parties

The law thereof and means of their representation in parliament

An article by Mr. Oraib Al-Rantawi about political parties in Jordan and the draft law issued by the Parties Committee of the Royal Committee to modernize the political system.

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The work of the Royal Committee to Modernize the Political System is based on the assumption that large political parties which represent the nation and are program-oriented are needed, and preferably forming “shadow governments”. Nobody argues with this premise and that Jordan needs parties with such “specifications and standards”. Yet the question remains as to what the most effective way is to achieve this legitimate goal.

In the committee, a fair portion of the members, including its chairman, are of the opinion that increasing the number of founding members of a political party, along with the prerequisite that national programs and possibly shadow governments exist, represent an indispensable condition for the existence and licensing (i.e. registration) of the party. Others, including this author, promote a rights-based and constitutionally-oriented argument which can be summarized as follows: “There should be no restriction to forming a political party as long as its goals, project and means are peaceful” and that the law, any law, should regulate this right and not restrict it in a manner that contradicts the spirit –and sometimes the text – of the constitution.       

Here, it should be said that propagating the right to form political parties should not result in additional moral or material costs shouldered by the state or the treasury. The state, its finances and public institutions, are only obligated to deal with parties that are elected to parliament. As for those who are not, there is no obligation of any kind thereto, neither in funding such parties or reimbursing them or even inviting them to public events, unless the event is very open to everyone. Thus, the protocols should be limited to the list of secretaries-general of parties represented in parliament.  

As for “restrictions”, these need to be stringent in regards to “funding the party”. This matter is related to preserving public funds; the funds of all Jordanians, along with combating corruption, freeing political life from any opportunism, establishing an ethical framework for party action and ensuring that the public interest is the focus of political party action. It can be added here that funding needs to be connected to the results of general elections, both local and parliamentary. The political parties law should include the “standards for such funding”, with the related details stipulated in the statute. Accordingly, the funding of parties cannot remain subject to the whims and desires of governments, especially since we are planning for parliamentary governments in the not too distant future (i.e. 10 years from now as we were told). 

In the Jordanian experience, there has been confusion that has propelled the drive towards legislative stability in general, and in particular in the realm of political parties and elections. Also in this experience, there have been enough lessons learned that have taught us to terminate this deliberate bureaucratic tendency in viewing political parties. When the number of founding party members was increased to 500, and a condition was set forth that 10 percent of the founders must be women for the political party to obtain “funding”, the number of parties increased. Further, when we undertook a study on “the role of women in Jordanian political parties”, we were shocked to find members who were members in name only and even unsure of which party they belonged to. Upon discovering the difficulty in compiling a “sample” of 500 party-affiliated women among the thousands of women who we assumed were members in various registered political parties –for at least the purpose of fulfilling the requirements of establishment and funding-, we realized that there were dozens of ways to find loopholes in the law and circumvent the complex conditions for creating political parties. The tricksters will spare no method to do so, even if it is required that members be residents of more than half the governorates of the Kingdom.

If the restrictions and requisites on the formation of political parties continue, we can imagine a scenario where the “reference point for political parties”, which up till now has been the Ministry of Political and Parliamentary Affairs, would include “judicial police” who oversee the membership numbers. So when there is a drop in numbers at any point in time below 1000 or 1500 members, the party would be considered as dissolved or its founders would be prevented from continuing with their duties. This would be a tiresome and expensive bureaucratic process, both for the party and the “reference point”. Additionally, this would open the door for targeting undesired or “troublemaker” parties, which has happened numerous times, at least in our short experience. So with these parties for example, it is enough to merely pressure a handful of founding members to withdraw from the party such that the number of founding members falls below the required quota, whether said party is registered or going through the establishment process. Accordingly, it would be forced to start from the metaphorical “square one” all over again, usually without success.

Here, I recall our experiences in the formation of successive governments over the years and decades. The prime minister typically wouldn’t have a comprehensive national program, and even more importantly he wouldn’t even have a team that possesses the characteristics of a shadow government. Also, the appointed PM usually is not adequate to represent the office he has been appointed to, and would not have been tested in the domain of public elections. More significantly, several of these PMs occupied their positions and were shocked to have been appointed, as they would not have imagined previously to hold a post any higher than a ministerial position, or possibly the position of chairman of a board or board of trustees. Accordingly, why have we shown such leniency towards this group of people, yet have been so stringent with the others aforementioned?

The political party is not built through the political parties law, as such a law is usually no more than a summary of the basics, that includes information about political parties, the adherence thereof to peaceful means and the legitimacy of their goals. The legitimacy of goals should not remain a vague phrase, but rather should be specified with themes, such as the party not being racist or characterized by factionalism/sectarianism, and not a threat to domestic peace and public order or national unity. There are other terms also that all need to be accurately described and specified so that they do not become a pretext to target political parties, especially if the parties are from the opposition.  

A political party is built through the elections law. When such a law is put in place, it makes the party or political entity a vessel for representation and participation. Thus, the political entity is not a framework for a family or tribe or a geographic region or other such sub-identities. In the elections law, there are tools that can be adopted to compel parties politically to search for alliances, coalitions and integrations, to formulate programs and visions for their members and to appease constituencies of diverse backgrounds, religions and ethnicities. So the party needs to ensure that it wins, and it cannot win unless it opens up at a nationwide level to the masses. Here we point out to the “threshold of victory” and the systems for calculating the winning electoral lists and the preferential benefits upon forming lists specific to youth, women, any “marginalized groups” and others.

The political party which is to engage in elections should be registered as a political entity with the Independent Electoral Commission. The requirements of registration should not focus on issues of seniority. As such, every group of public figures (whose number is determined by the minimum limit of the national list) can register as a political entity and run for elections. It might even surprise everyone, as did Emmanuel Macron in France, or more than a dozen Israeli political parties which formed on the eve of the elections and won a considerable number of Knesset seats, and sometimes most of them, to contribute in forming the government, or leading it.

In addition to the aforementioned, there are a couple of points relating to the current debate on the political parties law and means of their representation:

First, there is the argument on implementing the law retroactively or “prospectively” if you will (in a post-dated fashion). My fear is that existent parties will condone the idea of the law implementation with a “prospective effect”. The result may be that political parties will no longer resist the (injustices of the) new draft law and be silent or compliant therewith, on the basis that the law does not include them (since they have been established already and it would not have a retroactive effect but rather would only be activated at a point in the future). So the law, any law that is, should regulate the lives of all Jordanians both now and throughout its implementation, and not be tailored to the interests of one entity or the other. The concept of a retroactive or prospective effect in legislation is complicated. I hope that those persons specialized in this field tackle this concept, especially in relation to the political parties law, since I am not qualified for a deeper research in this domain.

Second, there is the idea of limiting national lists to political parties. This idea can be accepted, as long as there is leniency in defining a political party and opening the doors for its running in elections with eased restrictions. Yet if the situation remains as is, I would suggest the opening of lists for national personalities who can register a list or political entity with the Independent Commission. To ensure the feasibility and seriousness of such an approach, a condition can be set forth that the (non-political party) national list obtains the endorsement of a number of citizens that is equivalent to or surpasses the number of the founding party members, as will be determined by legislation.

Here also, I am worried that existent parties may condone the idea of limiting a national list to political parties, and I warn that this may lead to something akin to a “bazaar” when forming lists and hinder their creation. This can prevent the involvement of national figures –who are more popular than many secretaries-general- on these lists. This is not an option, or at least not an option in this transitional phase, as we are seeking to establish a new system for political parties.

Some people assume that the draft elections law and the draft political parties law, will create a new dynamic in Jordanian society, leading to the manifestation of new parties. This is possible, but definitely not inevitable. The process of forming new and considerable parties will take some time. In any case, this should not negate the right of national personalities and activists from organizing themselves in political-electoral entities outside current or upcoming political parties. This is particularly true since the Hirak movement has become the most attractive and influential form of organizing for youth; much more so than traditional political parties, whether at the level of Jordan, the Arab world or internationally.

We conclude with an idea that has found acceptance among the party leaders particularly, which is the “closed list”. The closed list is the guarantee of the party’s secretary-general to win, based on the votes of others in the list, and not the votes of his/her party or the votes necessarily acquired by his/her persona. Here, the right of the voter to rearrange the order of the list and selecting who the voter deems best, is confiscated. In essence, there is an additional obstacle being placed before the build-up of alliances and national and party coalitions. The closed list might be comfortable in some aspects, yet overall, it is “less democratic” and involves a degree of “abuse” unless it is linked to a serious effort to democratize internal party life and be dedicated to the practice of primaries. This will ensure proper representation and democratic selection in various phases. And God knows best.   


This article was translated from Arabic by Rifaat Odeh for KAS Jordan.

The original text was written by Mr. Oraib Al-Rantawi on 14.08.2021.
Al-Rantawi is the founder and director general of Al-Quds Center for Political Studies (Amman - Beirut).

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