Jordan’s Unlikely Reforms

A while back we published a guest post on the King of Jordan’s wish to bring political parties to Jordan. The post focused on the way in which Jordanians vote, notably “based on patronage, not policy.” In other words, the creation of political parties will mean little in Jordan as voters and politicians alike will ensure that the political parties are simply an extension of the current trends in voting. Today, the Black Iris of Jordan published a commentary on a recent speech by King Abdullah (see video above) in which the King said that he wanted to create a system that would allow for an elected government. The Black Iris author, Naseem, concludes that the promise of an elected government will not be fulfilled and cannot be fulfilled by the King. True change in Jordan, he believes, will come from the bottom.

Naseem details further the idea that Jordanian voters only vote based on patronage, hoping that the elected friend of family member would be able to provide jobs or other advantages. Much like the inevitably ineffective fate of the future political parties in Jordan, a popularly elected government is unlikely to be formed. From the Black Iris:

This makes it incredibly difficult to convince the average citizen that they share some responsibility in reform. That reform and progress is not dependent on the divine will of a King. This generation, more than any of its predecessors, has been taught to believe only in the King; to follow blindly, and question nothing. Nationalism is defined as the monarchy, and so is citizenship for that matter. No other forms of citizenship are taught. And thus people do not feel any sense of responsibility. Reform is a King’s game; one that does not require their public participation. That has been, by and large, the strategy employed for over a decade now, making it incredibly difficult to turn around and ask that people share the responsibility. That will not happen on the level that is required to bring about real tangible change.

Which is why I believe it doesn’t matter if the King is genuine or not. For even if he is, the reality of the situation is that people will simply look to him to deliver single-handedly. And perhaps more importantly, he will be faced with an entire political system that has no interest in changing the status quo because it either benefits from it or has grown accustomed to.

Now compare Naseem’s pessimistic view with our guest poster:

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?

Not only are the issues of political parties and an elected government inextricably linked, but the fundamental issues behind such possible reform is the same. Even if the King is able to establish a true form of elective government (currently the King appoints the Prime Minister and the House of Notables, one of the houses of Parliament), the voting tendencies of the public will continue to be based on patronage while leaving the infallible King in charge of the final decision. King Abdullah is a favorite of the west for his slight British accent thanks to his western education, amicable relations with Israel, and his endearing sense of humor (Jordan is between Iraq and a hard place…), yet the King is not about to remove the basis of power behind the monarchy.

As Naseem says, even if the King were willing to transform Jordan into a truly democratic system, he would be unwilling to. The idea that the King is infallible is so deeply entrenched in the Jordanian mindset that any type of elections would inevitably support the status quo (one of the questions on a first grade exam in Jordan: “Why do you love the King?”). Again from the Black Iris:

For even if he is genuine, the kind of change we need today cannot be dependent on the ability of a single person to deliver. And the majority of this country have been educated by the state to place all their hopes and dependency on the King and no one else. It is not a national vision; it is a royal vision. They are not national reforms; they are the King’s reforms. On any of our national holidays, we do not celebrate our national achievements and our national endeavors; we celebrate the crown’s achievements and the crown’s endeavors.

The fundamental point that Naseem and our guest poster were making is that change in the political system in Jordan will always be superficial until the Jordanian people – not the government – are able to shed the deeply entrenched view of King before country and patronage before policy. New political parties and an elected system would give a new shiny finish to the King’s government without tackling the major issues that face Jordan. Unfortunately, the fundamental social, political and educational changes that are required in Jordan are unlikely to come anytime soon.

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