The Continuing Tragedy of Democracy in Jordan:
Manifestations of Absolute Royal Dictatorship
The unexciting and predictable news has come that the Jordanian King, Abdullah recently dissolved his inept and dysfunctional Parliament. Ironically, this is the very same Parliament that the King personally engineered to bring to life, in order to lend an air of legitimacy to his autocratic rule.
Like too many other decisions made in Jordan today, no official reason was given for the King's sudden decision to dismiss his Parliament. But the regime’s media outlet and mouthpiece accused the dismissed Parliament of being “incompetent” in the handling of the country’s legislative agenda. Frankly, I do not know which legislative agenda they are talking about, unless they are referring to the King’s dictatorial programs. Indeed, the dismissed Jordanian Parliament was a servile, dysfunctional legislative body, created only to follow the King’s wishes. Parliament’s members cared about nothing but their own narrow, self-serving interests. But who was responsible for that situation?
The decision to dismiss Parliament had nothing to do with the best interests of Jordan and Jordanian citizens. Rather, I argue it was about the regime’s cultivation of a favorable domestic image and reputation. It may appear paradoxical that the King would dismiss a politically obedient body he himself created, so the question of his motive is an interesting one.
It is well established that the regime selected members of the Parliament and wrote the Parties and Elections Laws. Maybe more importantly, the regime’s security services managed and controlled the daily operations of the Parliament, placing senior intelligence officers and operatives in the Parliament building to enforce the regime’s will.
The 110-member Parliament, widely considered a rubber-stamp assembly, consisted of unsophisticated but loyal individuals. These members were chosen in November 2007 under a divisive and unpopular electoral law, which effectively reduced the representation of independent and reform-minded individuals in favor of the regime’s candidates.
The irony of this political tragedy is that the dismissed Parliament had exactly the composition that the King and his regime wanted. The regime’s security services widely intervened in the 2007 elections to produce precisely this kind of Parliament: over-representing certain geographic areas at the expense of others, eliminating several strong and popular independent public figures bidding to win a seat, and deliberately manipulating results to decimate the opposition’s representation. This charade confirms the notion: “You can get what you want and still not be happy.”
Furthermore, the short-lived Parliament was largely composed of influential politicians and business figures who used patronage and vote-buying to maintain their hold. During the 2007 election season, candidates promised impoverished Jordanians anything from heaters to food in exchange for support. The parliament’s “selection process” had also witnessed widespread fraud and voter manipulation, including mass transfers of voters by pro-government candidates to their districts. There was also deregistration of likely opponents and multiple voting by government supporters. The regime and its security services also helped rig the elections by allowing the army to vote - for the regime‘s candidates, of course.
The latest move to dissolve Parliament by the Jordanian regime could be considered commendable and a step toward real democracy, but it will only have any value if genuine parliamentary reform is adopted. However, as long as the same incompetent cadre of representatives keeps running for seats in the upcoming election, the miserable status quo will remain intact and the country will continue to suffer from a lack of genuine democratic institutions for years to come.
The absence of democratic institutions in Jordan is a central problem that needs to be tackled at every level. Just tinkering with the electoral law will not suffice. Any superficial changes in the electoral laws will only change the rulebook’s wording, not the practical outcome. Only a significant change in the players and a commitment to recognized democratic values will change the Jordan’s political structure for the better.
The Players in the Next Elections and Their Role:
The regime, including the Jordanian intelligence services and Royal Court: The Jordanian regime’s various power centers are autocratic by nature and have unilaterally chosen themselves to be the electoral arbitrator. From the start this has been a core problem; it is absurd to pretend the government can act as an honest watchdog over elections, when those elections are expected to produce a viable and freely functioning ‘opposition’ that might not agree with the King’s every wish.
In order to maintain an independent parliament capable of exercising its constitutional authorities, the role of the General Intelligence Department (GID) should be checked and restricted. But this is not the status quo. Instead, the Jordanian intelligence services decide who is politically loyal enough to be a member of the parliament. It is rather ironic that the security services, with their anti-democratic mindset, are deemed the ultimate authority on who is a loyal citizen, when the King has rhetorically declared on many occasions that Jordanians should express their views freely.
The criteria of service for both the Parliament and government should not be based on the whims and generosity of the security services. Jordan should not allow these favored people career longevity and the opportunity to cover up for each others’ misdeeds; rather, the patriotic aspiration of ALL Jordanians should be to achieve the legitimate political, social, and economic needs of the country and its people. If the security services are allowed to unilaterally determine political loyalty, then by default any other malicious and antidemocratic political behavior become the accepted criteria for handling political and social issues.
Instead, political qualification should be based on every citizen’s inherent love of country and respect for one’s Jordanian birthright, matched with the desire to unselfishly put oneself at the service of the country that should be the determining criteria. Obviously, there is a need to vet candidates, but the relevant criteria for this vetting should be based on a person’s criminal background rather than his or her political views. If a person is interested to run for the parliament, his or her good character and love of country should be the yardstick to judge his/her eligibility rather than his/her political views and ideological beliefs. As such, candidates such as Mr. Ahmed Abbadi, Laith Shubailat, Tujan Faisal, or others should be allowed to run without hindrance if they choose to.
The Parliamentary candidates: Public portrayal of anger is appealing to people because it plays into dramatic conflict and rhetoric with beautiful speeches filled with passionate expressions of heartfelt composition. But in most cases, unfortunately, such flowery rhetoric does not yield meaningful results. Therefore, I would advise “opposition” candidates to temper their rhetoric with discretion, and to be prudent and thoughtful in offering criticism. Candidates should have the right to advocate their political beliefs, but need to be respectful of others who disagree. By doing so, the public dialogue will present a favorable contrast to the heavy-handed censorship that is a trademark of the regime. Also, candidates should not be hostile to the United States. Part of the problem Jordanian opposition groups currently face, alas, is an unhelpfully negative attitude toward the U.S. and its interests in the region. For example, the present U.S. administration has shown an unusual and welcome approach to the Israeli-Palestinian issue. This new administration appears much more receptive to considering Arab points of view regarding this problem than previous American administrations. Engagement, dialogue, and a willingness to consider viable workable solutions that may not perfectly coincide with their views will bring about better understanding and greater cooperation among all parties. This would be a positive development. In the past, the Jordanian regime has been able to use its opposition’s inflexible, dogmatic political stands on issues against them when engaging Western leaders and opinion makers. By demonstrating a reasonable, open-minded attitude toward solving problems facing the Jordanian people and society, this will deprive the regime of one of its most effective arguments against broad public participation in the national political process.
At present, the parliamentarians (both current candidates and potential candidates) are mostly individuals who emphasize their tribal and familial affiliations and interests, at the expense of a universally beneficent national vision. Alas, these people have no long term goals to benefit the country; rather, their focus is on getting a big reward package (i.e., salary package, customs exemptions and other fringe benefits) that will outlive them regardless of their performance. Jordan and its institutions must encourage candidates with a legitimate, democratic and patriotic political agenda. Also, reform-minded and independent candidates should be allowed to run for elections, without encountering the traditional difficulties the regime has historically imposed on these people.
The Voting Public: voters in Jordan, as in other countries, tend to vote for their narrow personal interests but unfortunately, Jordanian society defines such interest in a very idiosyncratic way; it is the interests of the tribe, family and village (Al-Mafraq vs. Jordan or Bani Hassan vs the Jordanian family at large). Most Jordanian voters do not yet have the political instincts to promote a national agenda or identify a viable long term goal, and so they do not look for such platforms from their candidates. This is not a recipe for success in electing a parliament that is honest, incorruptible, and dedicated to the best interests of the country and its people.
The Jordanian media: Unfortunately, the Jordanian media is not independent. It has been used by the regime as a subservient mouthpiece and propaganda machine. But for elections to be truly free, all candidates must have universal access to all media outlets to present their political platform and discuss their agenda. Jordanian journalists should also be free to cover political issues that candidates bring for discussions, without fear of retribution.
Judiciary: The Jordanian judiciary is currently under the total control of the regime. If the King and his advisors are serious about their commitment to an independent and free election, then they need to release their grip on the judiciary and allow it to exercise its constitutional power to monitor the election. A functional and independent judiciary could also act as a super-ordinate watchdog on elected parliamentarians who, based on past performances are likely to overstep their mandate even after they have been elected.
A functioning and effective parliament should be placed within clearly-defined legal parameters by the judiciary. Given the current demography and political culture in Jordan, any future Parliament should have its collective will employed to balance the power of the Monarchy, which is the contemporary seat of political power in the country. Such a move would go a long way to establish the concept of governmental “checks and balances,” assuming that the judiciary does not mirror the same ineptitude that Parliament has recently displayed. If this concept is not properly implemented, then, as in the words of (former) Indian President, A.P.J. Abdul Kalam “…the nation would be on the calamitous road to inevitable disaster and ruination.”
Independent Election Commission: This body is the ultimate referee and administrator of everything concerned with the elections: public servants and civil society must continuously educate the public about the parliamentary process and the potential benefits of living in a free society. It is the responsibility of such a commission to register candidates, register voters, ensure free and fair campaigning by the candidates and parties, run the voting centers, allow complete and open media access, and take care of balloting procedures and the honest counting of votes. In terms of funding, these are public functions that are indispensible to democratic institutions, and these activities should receive full financing from the Jordanian treasury.
Civil Society: Free and democratic elections will not change the political culture of a society overnight. Long-term efforts are necessary to build an inclusive democratic society that respects human rights and laws, administers justice fairly, and encourages full citizen participation in government, including the development of an effective and viable civil society. The international community has for many years provided funding and training to Jordanian NGOs in hopes of spurring democratization, but such assistance has not achieved much in this regard. For civil society to contribute to democratic and peaceful political change, a critical mass of organizations devoted to the betterment of civil society must develop three main characteristics: a pro-democracy agenda; total autonomy and non-interference from the regime; and the ability to build coalitions (internally and externally). Although NGOs have grown in number in Jordan in the past decade, these three conditions unfortunately have not been met yet. In addition, the donor community brings its own problems to its relationship with civil society in the country. These include the narrow range of organizations with which donors typically interact, popular hostility toward western policies and values, and the broader challenge of setting up useful civil society assistance agenda and implementation plans.
International Observers: If the regime is serious about staging free and open elections, it must allow international observers to monitor the elections. There are many venues through which this could take place. Foreign governments participate in monitoring efforts, generally under the umbrella of an international organization. These international efforts are normally managed by a local electoral commission. A wide array of NGOs also participates in monitoring efforts. The Carter Center, for example, plays a key role with the United Nations Electoral Assistance Division and the National Democratic Institute when invited in building consensus on a common set of international principles for election observation.
The United States: Like it or not, the United States plays and will continue to play a major role in the political and economic decisions of Jordan. With its known role of promoting democracy and democratic institutions throughout the world, the U.S. can have a profound impact in the nurturing and development of democratic institutions in Jordan’s political and social infrastructure. As a resident and adopted citizen of the United States, I can personally attest to the emotional satisfaction I get from living my life as a free citizen who is able to speak and act freely according to my conscience, without the fear of punishment or retribution against me and my family. These concepts can easily be imported into Jordan, and the U.S. should make every effort to lead by example, demonstrating that these values have universal appeal to all people – men and women, Muslims and Christians and other religions, rich and poor. Such an effort would find fertile ground to take root and flourish in my native country.
The Monarchy: King Abdullah can find many examples of royal families in Europe whose members embrace the idea of a constitutional Monarchy, where the king (or queen) is widely respected and revered not for the power he or she wields over the people, but for the love and consideration the Monarch demonstrates toward his people and their welfare. Such a shift in King Abdullah’s thinking would not make him weaker; rather, it would earn him the genuine love and respect of his citizens, not to mention the rest of the democratic world.
Unfortunately, since his accession to the throne, King Abdullah has sidelined and marginalized the role of Parliament in the political process, and he has eroded the democratic gains made since 1989. It is my hope that the upcoming election will bring about a genuine change in Jordan’s political culture and its move toward a functioning democracy. If this happens, I will be one of the very first to salute the regime for making such efforts for the greater good of Jordan and its people. It is also my hope the Jordanian public have learned valuable lessons from the past, when they elected representatives who put the best interests of their constituents behind their own.