The Middle East Channel

Jordan: Just what exactly are we promoting?

On Nov. 9, the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan will hold its sixth round of national elections since 1989. Throughout what many perceive to be a 21-year-long liberalization process, the country has also legalized political parties, instituted a new municipal elections law and a women's quota, developed and strengthened professional associations, and slightly improved its record on human rights and judicial reform. King Abdullah II is an articulate, Western-educated professional soldier, and his wife, Queen Rania, is well known for her support of youth and humanitarian causes. Yet Abdullah has retained an opaque and unrepresentative electoral system, as well as continually undermined the policymaking role of an already toothless parliament. Ultimately, Jordan has made great progress in personal freedoms and many of democracy's procedural trappings, yet its citizens remain subject to the arbitrary policies of an unelected monarch and his family's historical coalition of supporters.

The United States has played an active role throughout this process, exerting diplomatic pressure and providing Jordan with technical and financial resources to support political reforms. These efforts have not led to greater democracy. Why not? The United States is playing a double game in Jordan. One the one hand, it has dumped millions into activities promoting liberalism and best-practice electoral processes, calling them democracy promotion. On the other hand, it does not seem willing or able to pressure a reliable friend and ally to transfer sovereignty to the Jordanian people, and continues to provide the Hashemite regime with aid that encourages policymaking behind closed doors.

The battle over Jordan's election law demonstrates the limitations of democracy promotion in the Hashemite Kingdom. Following an impressive Islamist showing in the 1989 polls, the late King Hussein in 1993 adopted the Single Non-Transferable Vote system (known as the "one man, one vote" law in Jordan), on the rationale that most voters would choose tribal or familial candidates over the Islamists if given only one vote. The electoral districting and distribution of seats was then highly skewed towards less populous, tribal areas of the South-the traditional Hashemite base. The Islamic Action Front, Jordanian NGOs, Jordan's 2005 National Agenda (headed by the well-respected liberal civil servant Marwan Muasher), and U.S. democracy organizations alike have emphasized the need for electoral redistricting, the introduction of a mixed proportional representation system, and an independent supervisory body for elections. Even the US Agency for International Development (USAID) chimed in, calling for "free and fair Parliamentary and local municipal elections that are broadly representative of the country's entire population" by 2011.

The new Temporary Elections Law, formulated behind closed doors and passed by the cabinet in May 2010 after the dismissal of the 2007 Parliament, addresses none of these concerns. It maintains the "one man one vote" system, re-labels electoral districts "electoral zones," and divides them into single-seat sub-districts. The number of seats per zone is the same as the old number of seats per district, except where four seats were added in the heavily Palestinian urban areas of Amman, Irbid, and Zarqa. Gerrymandering is still an issue; the Ma'an electoral zone, which is heavily tribal, elects seven seats for a population of 143,000, while the Amman zone elects 28 seats for 2.3 million people (a 1:20,428 ratio versus a 1:82,142 ratio). Candidates may only run in one sub-district, though voters may vote in any sub-district within their registered electoral zone. This feature has already generated considerable confusion. Potential candidates may not have full information about opponents in other sub-districts, winners in a particular subdistrict may not be overall zone winners, and it is possible that loyalist voters could be encouraged to vote in more competitive sub-districts where they do not actually reside.

Frankly, elections do not matter all that much given the relatively limited legislative authority of the parliament. The Jordanian parliament is by design a policy-taker, not a policy maker. The Kingdom's 1952 constitution stipulates that the monarch has the power to appoint the prime minister, dissolve parliament, veto legislation, and introduce "provisional laws" that have the full effect of the law when parliament is out of session. Abdullah's modus operandi for passing key legislation has been to dismiss the parliament, delay elections, and pass large amounts of provisional laws -- only some of which are ratified by the parliament when it is back in session. When parliament was out of session between 2001 and 2003, over 200 provisional laws were passed, many of them containing controversial economic reform provisions. Similarly, since November 2009, when the parliament was dismissed a second time, the Samir Rifai government has ushered through more than thirty provisional laws dealing with contentious issues like pensions, taxes, utilities pricing, and -- of course -- electoral reform.

Aside from military and intelligence assistance that surely supports the durability of the Hashemite regime, several aspects of U.S. non-military aid to Jordan actively work at cross-purposes with democracy promotion. In July, the Millennium Challenge Corporation (MCC) announced that it would commence negotiations with Jordan to move from "Threshold" to "Compact" status, which would make it eligible for larger amounts of aid. The irony is that the MCC is an organization explicitly designed to reward reformers with more aid, and the announcement came on the heels of the disappointing Temporary Elections Law. The actual substance of Jordan's Compact Agreement is also in no way related to political or economic reform. It is a $275 million agreement that will fund water infrastructure over a period of five years -- an undertaking that USAID itself has tried to distance itself from given the poor state of Jordanian water management institutions.

Additionally, USAID cash transfers and technical assistance implicitly encourage extra-legislative mechanisms of policymaking. Jordan receives an annual cash transfer of roughly $200 million that allows it to pay down its foreign debt. To receive the money each year the government must implement a list of 20 to 30 "conditional precedents (CPs)" that have been jointly formulated by USAID and the Ministry of Planning and International Cooperation (MOPIC). The CPs cover a range of issues, including reform priorities of individual ministers, small changes to benefit USAID projects, politically sensitive reforms that are not suited to high-profile USAID projects, and occasionally reforms to benefit U.S. commercial interests. These require legal changes that must be approved by the Jordanian parliament when it is in session, and which may be unpopular with Parliamentarians. The formulation of CPs takes place at the cabinet level and then appears to be ushered through the parliament by the king and his cabinet. Similarly, American technical assistance for economic and judicial reforms has also assisted the Jordanian cabinet, ministries, and boards in writing relevant legislation -- much of which was passed as temporary laws during the 2001-2003 and 2009-2010 parliamentary hiatuses. Many of these laws may in fact be beneficial to the Jordanian budget, judicial system, and overall economy in the long run -- but the process by which they were generated was not at all democratic.

U.S. democracy and governance assistance has tended to emphasize formal processes like elections, transparent parliamentary proceedings, and the protection of citizens from arbitrary state action (i.e. human rights, freedom of information, gender equality, judicial transparency and rule of law). Large projects have included MASAQ, a $15 million project for technical assistance to the Ministry of Justice, and the Parliamentary Strengthening Project, an $8.7 million project that aimed to provide technical assistance to parliamentary committees, automate the parliamentary voting system, and build a legislative research office in the parliament. A number of smaller projects, generally about $2.5 million apiece, that focus on political parties, women's issues, and grassroots political organization have been spread among the National Democratic Institute (NDI), the International Republican Institute, and Freedom House. This election day we can certainly expect a strong turnout from American NGOs and their local partners, much in the manner of the 2007 elections -- which marked the first non-partisan election observations in Jordan. For instance, in 2007 NDI trained about 2000 observers from different CSOs, including the National Center for Human Rights, Al Hayat Center for Civil Society Development, and Al Urdun al Jadid Research Center, and for this election will provide international observers and a pre-election assessment mission.

Many of these projects can be considered quite successful on their own terms. The Temporary Elections Law changed the women's parliamentary quota from six to 12 seats, which will raise Jordan's minimum proportion of women in parliament to 9 percent -- the average in other Arab countries. And there is no doubt that donor and NGO concern over vote-rigging, interference, and candidate intimidation in the 2003 and 2007 elections encouraged the regime to attach higher penalties to electoral crimes, expand the role for domestic election monitors, place judges on election committees, and accommodate disabled voters for the upcoming election.

While such programs allow the U.S. to demonstrate its ongoing commitment to "promoting democracy," the authoritarian regimes in the region seem quite capable of coexisting which them. Without a Jordanian commitment to democratize (and this commitment must be home-grown), American aid for liberalism and electoral process will at most facilitate the emergence of a liberal authoritarian regime. Liberal authoritarianism may, in fact, be a desirable outcome given the U.S. reliance on Jordan for logistical support in Iraq and Afghanistan, intelligence cooperation, and remaining a friendly neighbor for Israel. Genuine democracy would certainly remove the Hashemites from political power, and, given the country's majority Palestinian population, could also destabilize already fragile Palestinian-Jordanian relations.

So maybe this is as good as it gets. Without more meaningful change, elections in Jordan will yield the same thing as the last several rounds: a vast kitty of patronage for royalist, tribal parliamentarians, and a Hashemite monarchy that rules over everything else. Was the goal of "democracy promotion" actually democracy? Or was it carefully placed activities intended to boost liberalism and flaunt electoral process while still guarding Hashemite supremacy? Honesty and conceptual precision are necessary at this moment, and if they are not forthcoming, Americans and Jordanians alike will almost certainly be disappointed.

Anne Mariel Peters is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Government at Wesleyan University.

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