Jordan: a transition to what?

Yesterday, one week ahead of Jordan's controversial parliamentary election, King Abdullah issued the second of his "discussion papers" intended "to share his vision on the kingdom's comprehensive reform process" (full text here).

In his first paper, at the end of December, the king lectured Jordanians about citizenship and the need to participate actively in national debates. Yesterday's paper talks about parliamentary government.

King Abdullah is notorious for chopping and changing prime ministers – he has had 12 prime ministers during his 13 years on the throne – but that may be about to change.

"After the upcoming elections, we will start piloting a parliamentary government system, including how our prime ministers and cabinets are selected," he writes.

The king goes on to explain how this will supposedly work:

• The new prime minister, while not necessarily an MP, will be designated based on consultation with the majority coalition of parliamentary blocs.

• If no clear majority emerges initially, then the designation will be based upon consultation with all parliamentary blocs.

• The prime minister-designate will then consult with the parliamentary blocs to form the new parliamentary government and agree on its programme, which will still have to obtain and maintain the Lower House’s vote of confidence.

There are several points to note about this. First, the phrase "based on consultation" allows plenty of scope for manipulation of appointments by the king and masks the fact that he still has the last word. Article 35 of the Jordanian constitution says: 

"The King appoints the Prime Minister and may dismiss him [sic] or accept his resignation."

The prime minister does of course need a vote of confidence from parliament but that shouldn't be too difficult to obtain. The forthcoming elections are being conducted under new rules that seem designed to produce a parliament of government loyalists.

Finally, not requiring the prime minister to be a member of parliament is scarcely conducive to effective parliamentary government. The constitution (Article 52) says that "ministers who are not members of either House may speak in both Houses" but does not oblige them to speak and answer questions in parliament.

It's worth contrasting this with the constitutional reforms introduced in Morocco in 2001 which, while leaving a lot to be desired, went a good deal further in limiting the king's power and enhancing the power of parliament.

The Moroccan reforms made the government "accountable only to parliament" and gave parliament the final say in ratifying legislation. 
The king also gave up his right to choose his own prime minister. In Morocco, heads of government must now come from the largest party in parliament. (That is potentially problematic since in the event of a hung parliament the largest party does not necessarily form the government but, nevertheless, it established an important principle.)

If Jordan's transition to "full parliamentary government" is to succeed, three conditions will have to be met, King Abdullah says.

One is the development of real political parties "that aggregate specific and local interests into a national platform for action". Another is a change in the way parties operate in parliament:

"This will require a shared understanding of how [parliamentary blocs] can agree on common policy platforms as a basis for cooperation and stable government. 

"Opposition parties will similarly need to agree on conventions for how they cooperate in holding the government to account and offer an alternative vision – their role is just as crucial for successful government."

In addition to that, he says, the civil service "will need to further develop its professional, impartial non-political abilities to support and advise the ministers of parliamentary governments".

If the king is right in saying these are the conditions for success, it's difficult to avoid the conclusion that his "reform" initiative will fail.

The idea that Jordanians might vote for parties on the basis of "a national platform for action" is pretty laughable, as a number of the WikiLeaks documents made clear. Discussing the 1997 elections in Jordan, one US embassy cable said:

"The estimated price of a vote varies. The general consensus ... is that 100 JD ($70) is the going rate for a vote, but some candidates have placed it as high as 200 JD ($140) and as low as 50 JD ($35). One candidate said that voters were being offered 100 JD plus a mobile phone."

The cable continued:

"Every candidate we talk to expresses disgust towards anyone who would sell their vote ... Despite their alleged unwillingness to buy votes, every candidate with whom we've spoken acknowledges that they are deluged with calls from vote sellers ... 

"A candidate for the Christian seat in Madaba received such a call during a visit by Embassy officers. Theatrically chastising the seller, the candidate said in Arabic, 'No, I don't buy votes. Don't you know that people from foreign embassies are watching?' "

For candidates who don't stoop to direct vote-buying, an alternative is to provide their supporters with "services", which the embassy cable described as "a difficult grey area". 

"One Madaba candidate became known to voters through his tribal connections, which allowed him to find jobs and solve problems for his constituents. For many voters, this kind of service provision through 'connections' is a prime qualification for any candidate. 

"Most Jordanians we have talked to see their representatives as a personal entree into the bureaucracy – a 'fixer' who can cut through red tape and make things happen. Yet in the context of a campaign, this can be seen as a form of corruption."

Similarly, the king's idea of a professional, independent civil service providing ministers with sound advice is largely an illusion. The civil service is a mainstay of Jordan's patronage system and is riddled with corruption – especially wasta, where favours are given and received because of people's "connections".

Though a few prominent Jordanians have been given stiff jail sentences for corruption, efforts to tackle the problem have been patchy and half-hearted. In 2011, a proposed law which was ostensibly meant to combat corruption actually included a clauseto discourage journalists from exposing it. 

Posted by Brian Whitaker, 17 January 2013