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“Plus ca change, plus c’est la meme chose.” The old French saying – “the more something changes, the more it stays the same” – reflects the realities of current Jordanian politics. Indeed, the Jordan’s political situation as I described it on this blog nearly two years ago still largely applies.
The two year reform initiative, part of a larger program since King Abdullah II took the throne, has been superseded by a campaign marketing the process and unrelenting criticism of its lack of results. So what, if anything, has changed? Why has Jordan, unlike many of its neighbors, eschewed more dynamic transformation? And what can we expect for Jordanian politics going forward?
King Abdullah inaugurated a new parliament this past Sunday, following the January 23rd elections billed as a “litmus test” on Jordan’s reform initiative to date. The new parliament is meant to begin “the era of parliamentary government” following various changes to the electoral process. A new oversight body presided over elections for the first time, the total number of seats was increased from 120 to 150, a new second ballot for national lists was added to inspire party creation, and the prime minister will not merely appointed by the monarch but selected “in consultation” with the legislature, and a few well-publicized prosecutions targeted candidates engaged in vote buying, and international monitoring groups accepted the invitation to observe the elections and found them to be generally transparent.
But transparent process – which itself is highly contested – is less satisfying to those demanding reform than substantive change. Underlying the structure of representation is an electoral law rejected as unfair by much of the population, leading to the boycott of the most viable opposition parties, most notably the Islamic Action Front. The current system of representation is not at all proportional, privileging areas traditionally most loyal to the monarchy and underrepresenting the urban centers of Amman, Irbid, and Zarqa where Palestinians and non-tribal populations predominate.
Combined, the boycott of the IAF and numerous leftist parties and the elections law that motivated their abstention resulted in a parliament that tilts strongly toward independent regime supporters, many familiar faces, and few opposition voices. Moreover, because the elections were such a focal point for the reform process, the many flaws associated with them are likewise the focus of continued criticism.
Some doubted the independence of the Independent Electoral Commission given that its leadership was appointed by the king. Four candidates charged with corruption beat their competition and are likely to take their seats. The consultation over prime minister selection is not institutionalized in the constitution, and Jordanians are wondering how much this consultation will differ from the previous practice of parliamentary confirmation of the king’s appointee.
As a consequence of general malaise over the elections and the unlikelihood that the new parliament being a strong avenue for reform, official rhetoric regarding the elections changed over time. What was originally the apex of the reform initiative became what outgoing Prime Minister Abdullah Ensour called “a stepping stone” to more serious reform going forward. This process is not unfamiliar for Jordanians who have seen a commitment to reformist rhetoric with little change in the structure of political power. (For a more thorough discussion of the politics surrounding the elections, see my recent piece for the Foreign Policy Research Institute.)
Of course, all of this discussion of elections focuses solely on the lower house of Jordan’s legislative politics. This funneling of attention has been a successful strategy for regime maintenance for more than two decades. Political activity is directed toward elections a process of electing representatives that have little governing power. The lower house is trumped by an upper house completely appointed by the monarch and dominated by former government officials and notables. Both houses are superseded by the executive direction of the king who maintains control over the key levers of power, including the prerogative to dissolve parliament that has been used often in recent years.
In general, the parliament meets infrequently and does not provide a credible check on executive power. It is as yet unknown whether the statements made by King Abdullah in his “discussion papers” about a greater governing role for the legislature will come to fruition. Ceding powers to elected governments inherently diminishes monarchical influence, but the strategy also allows the king to more credibly shift blame to prime ministers and their cabinets in a time of widespread disaffection.
Cabinet shuffling has become the norm of late as five different prime ministers have been in office since the start of 2011 and a sixth will be selected very soon. Some longevity in the position is the only way to legitimize the new “consensual” selection of the governing cabinet, and the only way that King Abdullah can convincingly claim that significant power rests outside of the palace. However, two important mechanisms of managing public dissent in the country – dismissal of prime ministers and dissolution of parliament to trigger new elections – conflict directly with this desired longevity.
As both party opposition and protest movements have promised to continue and even increase their activities, government decisionmaking on how to respond will prove even more difficult. The opposition remains discontented and there is much on the horizon likely to generate further turbulence. In the short-term, the cost of electricity is expected to increase under the new parliament as the government tries to pay its debts and satisfy the IMF on conditional loans. Like the increase in fuel prices in November, protests and strikes are likely to follow such a decision.
But these actions are not only responses to proximate policy decisions, but to the underlying problems with Jordan’s economic system like ever-increasing inequality and its readily apparent manifestations in social life, as well as its reliance on foreign aid from the United States and the Gulf countries. Corruption may be the most threatening of the more immediate demands against the regime. Protests feature anti-corruption slogans and signs targeting the both the system in general and the palace itself, and this grievance unifies the disparate parts of the opposition.
Instances of lavish spending and allegations of ill-gotten gains have been damaging to the public perception of the royal family, particularly when the general populace faces increasing economic hardship. A couple of high-level court cases are meant to assuage the popular demands against rampant corruption, most recently a case against the king’s uncle-by-marriage, Walid Kurdi. But opposition groups continue to call for a more systematic anti-corruption effort. These predominantly socio-economic issues unite the opposition, whether the Islamists or the leftists or the hirak,the decentralized and predominantly East Bank protest movement spread across Jordan’s towns and villages.
Beyond this, however, there are major differences among the regime detractors (something I describe briefly in a recent Fair Observer piece). Absent the general demand for regime change observed elsewhere in the region, there is no unifying focal point drawing opposition together against the regime. In fact, opposition groups have time and again professed that their demands fall within the structure of the current system and do not seek to replace it.
The grim reminders from Syria and Egypt that wholesale regime change can be an uncertain and dangerous undertaking further motivates self-censorship in activist behavior and provides little impetus for a full-scale revolutionary effort. In many ways, then, Jordan’s reform effort in response to “Arab Spring” is where it started. The same problems that brought people to the streets two years ago persist today. A familiar song is playing on repeat: adjustments to the electoral law, an election in which the only viable opposition boycotts or rejects the results, and a new parliament unlikely to produce anything substantially different from its predecessor.
Only time will tell if any real powers or decisions will reflect a “new era” of Jordanian politics. Judgments aside, little change in the system of power and a restrained and temperate opposition should make anyone skeptical. of any meaningful transformation of the Jordanian political system anytime soon.