I’m fascinated by Jordanian politics, particularly in terms of the role that political parties play in the country. To a foreigner such as myself, the IAF, the Communist Party, and the dozen or so other political groups active in Jordan all take on a sort of captivating mystique. You know they’re there, but you can’t really see them. Thus while these parties are a significant part of Jordanian society, while they have influence in local communities, they are simply nowhere to be found in the Jordanian government. With the exception of a few current Deputies who “represent” the IAF yet ran in the 2010 elections against their party’s boycott of Parliamentary elections (how’s that for allegiance?) you will find only independent officials in the Parliament or Cabinet.
So when the National Front for Reform was launched last Saturday in Amman, amidst news sources hinting that upcoming national reform will focus on the development of political parties, I was intrigued. Clearly the NFR is a response to recent protests in the country, which have been ongoing since January of this year. In light of the recent discussions about political parties being a part of political reforms, and considering this coalition, it seems that parties could be the answer to the kingdom’s political woes. In the face of economic hardship, political corruption, and national unrest, you have to ask: are parties really the answer?
Jordan is a constitutional monarchy. Legislative decision-making comes from the bicameral Parliament, consisting of the Chamber of Deputies (the 120 officials chosen by popular vote) and the House of Notables (60 candidates chosen by the monarch). The Prime Minister is also chosen by the monarch, and while the PM elects his Cabinet, he must consult with the King before making his final decision. The House of Deputies and its elected officials fall at the bottom of this political hierarchy, as more powerful decision-makers can trump the assembly’s decisions.
Months after the 2010 elections and shortly following protests elsewhere in the Middle East, the Jordanian people took to the streets. Overall, demonstrations in Jordan have been non-violent (aside from a protest in late March, when protesters clashed with government supporters) and it seems as though the Jordanian government is at least trying to attend to some of the demands of the people.
Protesters demanded that the Jordanian government reform to fight corruption and give Jordanians greater voting rights. Protesters recognize the toxic effect that widespread government corruption has on Jordan, a country that is already 5 billion dollars dependent on foreign aid annually. Additionally many are demanding that the people, not the monarch, elect the Prime Minister. Judging by such a demand, the people seem frustrated with a system where the most powerful officials, who make up the House of Deputies and the Cabinet, are chosen by the Palace.
Patronage, not policy
I find that demands for less corruption and augmented voting rights are inseparable from a broader political dilemma that Jordan faces: the attitude amongst citizens and politicians that patronage trumps policy. On the side of the politicians, this approach fuels rampant government corruption. In “Elections under Authoritarianism,” Ellen Lust-Okar observes the weaknesses of the Jordanian constitutional monarchy. Though written in 2006, her message still applies to Jordan today:
Parliament is, rather, a basis from which one can call upon ministers and bureaucrats to allocate jobs to constituents. Indeed, in Jordan government ministers have reportedly complained that parliamentarians are pushing them to supply jobs, at times ‘threatening state institutions of scandalizing them in parliament if they did not react positively to these requests. The result…was that the government institutions and ministries allocated ‘an unofficial quota for parliamentarians’ relatives and acquaintances to avoid friction with deputies.
Higher political authorities can override Parliamentary decisions, but according to Lust-Okar, to “avoid friction” parliamentary members are given unlimited wasta powers [ed: wasta is the term describing the art of knowing the right person], often handing out state jobs to friends and relatives, all at the cost of the Kingdom.
Likewise, the Jordanian people all too frequently vote based not on the policies of the candidates running in their district, but on which candidate they are affiliated with. Jordanians of Circassian heritage vote for the Circassian candidate, powerful tribes support candidate from their tribe, friends vote in friends. Citizens voting based on patronage, not policy do so because they hope that their candidate’s success will lead to a job in the public sector, or at the least a connection in high places.
Because of this political attitude, we are left with a Parliament of goons who do little besides provide handouts to their selected patrons. On the flip side are the people who elected these goons, individuals motivated by the promise of individual benefits, not by the well-being of the nation.
Are political parties the answer?
Judging from the recent talk about political parties being a part of Jordanian reform, and looking at the new NFR, it’s clear that that the Palace considers active, cooperative parties as the key to untangling the current political mess in Jordan. Ideally, parties with strong platforms on national issues will attract supporters who feel the same. Instead of electing a distant cousin or a friend, voters will be more inclined to support candidates who reflect policies that they as individuals personally agree with. And ideally, this lead to better governance, happy people, and no more protests…right?
However, there are two foreseeable obstacles: firstly, isn’t it possible that the political parties will simply reestablish the prior system of patronage, not policy? What if the parties assemble in a manner that reinstates the traditional networks of affiliations? Also, even if we get political parties existing independent of the old networks, this does not guarantee that membership will be based on personal opinion. If a party recruits by promising handouts and providing appealing perks in exchange for membership, how is this any different than the crooked Parliamentary politicians of today?
The second problem is that, even if Jordan succeeds in augmenting the quality of the Deputies in Parliament, this legislative body may still remain weak. And the Palace has made no suggestion of satisfying the demand that the Prime Minister be chosen by national vote. As long as the election of the most important political positions remains out of the people’s hands, the demands of the protesters will only somewhat be met. How can Jordan expect the people to take voting seriously, when their elected officials are doomed to the bottom of the Parliamentary totem pole? When, despite calling this a “democratic process” the final decision is always in the hands of the Monarchy?
CS lives and works in Jordan; Photo from 7iber