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Romancing the Throne: The New York Times and The Endorsement of Authoritarianism in Jordan

[A Jordanian pedestrian passes by a Jordanian parliamentary campaign poster, in Amman, Jordan, on Thursday 3 January 2013. The Arabic writing on the poster reads, [A Jordanian pedestrian passes by a Jordanian parliamentary campaign poster, in Amman, Jordan, on Thursday 3 January 2013. The Arabic writing on the poster reads, "the women of Jordan from the field to the parliament." Image by Mohammad Hannon via Associated Press]

On 23 January 2013, elections were held for the seventeenth parliament of the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan. During the past several months, the monarchy and its allies hailed the 2013 parliamentary elections in Jordan as both the symbol and litmus test of the regime's commitment to "reform" in the country. Alternatively, the Islamic Action Front (IAF)—the political wing of the Jordanian Muslim Brotherhood and the leading political opposition group since at least the early 1990s—called on Jordanians to boycott the elections in protest of what they described as an unrepresentative political system. These two opposing views represent a conflict over the definition of the current status quo in Jordan. For those championing the elections, the regime is serious about reforming itself. They posit the elections as an opportunity for change and development in Jordan, as it is framed within a teleology of progress anchored in neoliberal reform and the expansion of the parameters of permissible speech. In addition, they frame calls for boycotting the elections, indeed the act of boycott itself, as indifference, laziness, and a lack of commitment to political change. For those boycotting the elections, the regime is not serious about reforming itself. They highlight the ways in which recent reforms do little to challenge the centralization of decision-making in the Jordanian political system, and its shielding from any meaningful transparency and accountability. More specifically, they claim that the rules and regulations governing the elections represent intentional strategies of regime-managed electoral contestation that serve only to reproduce that centralization of power.

In the build up to the elections, many reporters and analysts claimed that the "success” of the vote—and in turn, regime efforts at "reforming" itself—depended in large part on whether or not the IAF-led boycott would effect the overall vote turnout. Days after the election, both the participation rate and the election process are being hailed by many state elites in Jordan, their allies around the world, and commentators as a resounding symbolic and tactical victory for King Abdullah II, his regime, and its supporters. While some have cast the IAF as the “biggest loser” in the 2013 elections, others have focused on the “success” of the regime. In effect, the discussion on politics in Jordan has shifted from debating the efficacy of elections as a form of political practice to a celebration of the conducting of elections as a sign of progress. The actual rules regulating the elections, or the distribution of power within state institutions—most notably, between the palace and the parliament—is of secondary relevance in such discussions.

The significance of the just described shift should not be lost on us. In some senses, it represents an important recalibration of the indicators of legitimacy among reporters and analysts alike in the aftermath of the eruption of protests across the Arab world—collectively referred to as the Arab uprisings. Underlying much of the celebratory narratives is the claim that a boycott had little to no effect on the elections, as well as the reality that they were carried out with minimal public protest and street demonstration against the regime—at least none that mirrored those of January-March 2011 as well as November 2012. Forgotten are the years of top-down regime managed “reforms” that characterized Jordan and every other authoritarian state in the Middle East and North Africa between the late 1980s and through the end of 2010. Also forgotten is the fact that those regimes were able to “upgrade” their authoritarianism through such elections, and that the taking to the streets in many cities across the Arab world during 2011 and 2012 was in large part a rejection of formal politics. What many journalists and analysts seem to be doing is doubling down on their previous arguments about the alleged moderation—and, in some cases, benevolence—of the Hashemite regime in Jordan.

Such characterizations certainly build off of the fact that protests in Jordan throughout 2011 and 2012 never developed into the types of protests organized in Tunisia, Egypt, Bahrain, Yemen, and Syria. In Jordan, they were both smaller in size and overwhelmingly reformist (rather than revolutionary) in demands. Add to this the official “higher” voter turnout (vis-à-vis the 2010 Jordanian parliamentary elections) according to the newly established Independent Election Commission (IEC) of Jordan, and one might be left with the impression that the regime is not only reforming itself but that the citizens of Jordan believe in these reforms.

Reform vs. Restructuring: The Politics of "Progress"

On 30/31 January of this year, the New York Times (NYT) ran an article entitled "In Jordan, Progress in Small Steps." This was only five days after the NYT had ran an article entitled "Loyalists to Dominate Jordan's New Parliament." If one were to think that the two stories represent divergent views of the recent parliamentary elections, or Jordanian politics in general, one would be wrong. This accidental slippage (at best) or intentional conflation (at worst) between "progress" and the regime's continued dominance of the political system in Jordan is nothing short of an accurate representation of the key analytical problem with much of the commentary on the kingdom that journalists and scholars have produced over the past few months. To better understand this problem, one must break down the arguments advanced and the assumptions they are based on.

Much of this type of “positive assessment” of the elections hinges on the official turnout rate of approximately fifty-six percent. Despite this official rate being only four percentage points higher than the official turnout rate in 2010 (which was approximately fifty-two percent, in an election that was not only boycotted by the IAF but also the National Committee of Retired Servicemen), much of the reporting and analysis of the elections claim that the 2013 voter turnout represents a victory for the regime. There are two important critiques to be made of such a narrative. First, even if we take the voter turnout rate at face value, all these elections tell us is that the “reform game” is still in play in Jordan. However, this is not news to anyone that has been following developments in Jordan with a critical eye. One should caution against equating the continuity of the reform game in Jordan with either pro-regime popular values among the population, or a benevolent and non-coercive orientation among regime elements. The persistence of the reform game has more to do with institutional and strategic relations within the Jordanian political field—an issue that has been discussed elsewhere—than with the alleged democratic intentions or practices of the monarchy. Second, the 2013 official turnout was calculated as a percentage of registered voters, whereas the 2010 official turnout had been calculated as a percentage of eligible voters (irrespective of whether they were registered or not). Put differently, those comparing turnout rates are doing so between apples and oranges. Had the 2013 turnout been calculated as the 2010 turnout rate was, it would have been established at less than forty percent.

The “positive assessment” of the elections is also premised on a conflation between genuine progress and the strategic defeat of IAF. On the one hand, this was accomplished by describing the (false) voter turnout rate as a regime tactical victory over the IAF. The litmus test of progress, according to such conflation, is containment of the regime’s traditional urban-based political opposition party—which also happens to be Islamist—rather than meaningful political representation and accountability. In fact, most reporting and analysis of the elections offer little evaluation whatsoever about the quality of representation the electoral law allows for, or the structure of power that exists in Jordan between the regime, the cabinet, and the parliament.

An X-Ray of Parliament

At stake in the 2013 parliament were 150 total seats in the lower house of parliament (formally known as the House of Deputies):

  • 108 seats were filled through the single non-transferable voting system, with votes cast across forty-five electoral districts. The number of seats allotted to each district varies from one to seven, and each voter voted for only one candidate irrespective of whether there is more than one seat allotted to her district. In any given district, the top M candidates with the highest number of votes are elected, whereby M represents the number of seats allotted to the specific district.
    • Within this district voting, there are twelve of the 108 district seats that are allotted for Christians (nine seats) and both Circassians and Chechens (three seats). So if a hypothetical district had three seats, one for a Muslim, one for a Christian, and one for a Circassian/Chechen, the Muslim candidate with the highest number of votes among Muslim candidates would be elected, along with the Christian and Circassian/Chechen candidates with highest number of votes among Christian and Circassian/Chechen candidates, respectively. Voters, on the other hand, could cast a vote for any candidate, irrespective of the religious or ethnic identity of either the voter or the candidate in question.
    • The exception to this is in the three "bedouin" districts (the northern bedouin district within the Mafraq governorate, the central bedouin district consisting of parts of the fourth electoral district of the Amman governorate, and the southern bedouin district consisting of parts of the Aqaba and Maan governorates). Therein, only members of specified families are entitled to vote and run within each of the three bedouin district.
    • Note that there is no minimum percentage threshold for any district seat winner (bedouin or otherwise), as the winner simply had to have more votes than all other eligible competitors for that seat—even if the votes cast in their favor represent a small minority of the total votes cast in the district.
  • Fifteen additional seats are reserved for women, divided across the twelve governorates of Jordan and the three bedouin electoral districts. Each woman that received the highest proportion of votes within her governorate (made up of several districts) or bedouin district, without being elected outright to her respective district, filled one of these fifteen seats. It goes without saying that they were thus filled from the outcome of the single vote cast for district seats.
  • Twenty-seven final seats were filled through a national party list proportional voting system, where parties are awarded the proportion of seats that votes cast in their favor represented relative to the total number of votes cast for the part list seats. Each voter therefore also got to cast a vote for his or her preferred "national" political party.

In other words, each voter cast two votes: one vote for the district representative(s) and another for the national party representatives.

Those that championed—or implicitly endorsed—the 2013 elections highlighted the differences with the 2010 elections. In fact, most accounts of the recent elections noted the differences between the 2012 Election Law and that of 2010. The new election law increased the total number of seats in the lower house from 120 to 150. This increase was accomplished by increasing the female quota seats by three (from twelve to fifteen), as well as introducing the twenty-seven seats filled via the national party list voting system.

[A Jordanian pedestrian passes by a Jordanian parliamentary campaign poster, in Amman, Jordan, on Thursday 
3 January 2013. The Arabic writing on the poster reads, "the women of Jordan from the field to the parliament."
Image by Mohammad Hannon via Associated Press]


An MRI of Parliament

Irrespective of the above-described changes (and there are others that were not discussed), fundamental institutional power relations established and maintained by previous election laws and the larger trajectory of authoritarian state formation in Jordan remain unaffected. In their celebratory narratives, reporters and analysts failed to draw attention to the ways in which political decision-making and policy-implementation in Jordan are extra-parliamentary. To quote one analysis during the run-up to the 2010 elections:

The legislative process is entirely mediated by the regime. The Jordanian National Assembly is comprised of an elected lower house (Majlis al-Nuwwab [Chamber of Deputies]) and a royally appointed upper house (Majlis al-A'yan [Assembly of Senators]). Thus, irrespective of what the elected branch of parliament passes, such legislation is subject to rejection, amendment, and/or approval by the appointed branch of parliament.

. . .

This is to say nothing of the fact that proposals are first referred to the lower house by a royally-appointed Prime Minister and that final legislation (after passing both the lower and upper houses) is subject to the approval or rejection of the King.

Furthermore, the 2013 elections continue the over twenty-year-old practice of handicapping any opposition and empowering regime supporters through over/under-representation and gerrymandering. To quote the same analysis from 2010:

[T]he distribution of seats among the twelve governorates of Jordan (each divided into various numbers of districts and an attendant number of seats, all allegedly based on demographics) continues to provide rural areas (traditionally supportive of the regime) greater representation than they deserve.

Specific figures might help highlight what is at stake. The governorate of Amman is allotted twenty-five seats to represent its 2.4 million residents, approximating one parliamentarian for every ninety-six thousand people. Compare this to the representation allotted to the governorate of Balqaa, wherein ten seats represent 419,000 residents—approximating one parliamentarian for every forty-two thousand residents. Even more dramatic is the case of the governorate of Tafila, wherein four seats represent eighty-eight thousand residents—approximating one parliamentarian for every twenty-two thousand residents. Such discrepancies in the proportion of seat allotment to resident populations are staggering, representative of the lopsided and unbalanced representation across all twelve governorates, and highlight an intentional strategy to privilege the traditional social base of the regime at the expense of its primarily urban and middle-class based centers of opposition.

Finally, there is the issue of the single non-transferable voting system. Jordan is one of only three countries that have institutionalized such a system. Each voter casts one vote for one candidate in the district in which the voter is registered to vote. In combination with the winner-take-all election of allotted seats in each parliament, this system disincentivizes non-parochial vote casting—making it much more rational for voters to privilege candidates with similar familial or tribal affiliations than basing their selection criteria on political platforms and cross-communal voter mobilization. It thus reinforces the very dynamic that opposition groups have long sought to challenge: an electoral system that handicaps genuine political parties, and renders campaign politics more about narrow interests (that are easily facilitated by the regime) rather than national politics (such as political accountability, economic development, foreign policy).

Given such an institutional framework for the existing (regime-managed) electoral competition, there should be little surprise that the winners of the 2013 parliamentary elections were largely drawn from the groups that form the nucleus of the junior partners of the ruling coalition in Jordan: privileged tribes and families long-allied with the monarchy; select members of the business community that have been the primary beneficiaries of the unraveling of the state-centered economy; and a handful of career politicians that have perfected the art of winning SNTV-determined seats. While the participation of the IAF and other boycotting groups might have slightly altered this outcome, the above discussion should have made clear that there is a structural limit to how much opposition participation can alter this outcome—and the ways in which that limit falls far short of any meaningful foothold in the distribution of power within the Jordanian state.

The time has come to abandon any and all pretense that what the regime is doing is leading Jordan towards a genuinely reformed political system—wherein King Abdullah II (or the monarchy as a whole) would rule in a manner that is much more constrained and with greater checks on his power and more parity in relation to both the parliament (as an institution) as well as the IAF and other political groups (as an opposition force). This, in effect, is another way of claiming that the reform game is a viable option for meaningful transformation. Beyond the dismal empirical record of more than twenty-years of “reform” in Jordan and across the region, there are the socio-political facts that regimes do not willingly give up power and that formal politics offer limited avenues for structural transformation when sought from below. One need only consider the dilemma Egyptian activists continue to face in the aftermath of the fall of Hosni Mubarak when confronted with the choice between electoral participation and contentious politics. This is not to say that the current state of popular (non-electoral) mobilization in Jordan (as it stands today) is inevitably going to force the hand of the regime into meaningful change. That depends on a number of factors, a discussion of which is beyond the purview of this article.

Theater of the Absurd Revisited

Given all of the above, the persistence of benevolent and reformist narratives regarding the regime in Jordan is quite astonishing. Nowhere is this clearer than in the conclusion of the NYT’s “In Jordan, Progress in Small Steps,” where writer Rana F. Sweiss exclaims:

In the coming days, Parliament will submit a list of names from which the king has pledged to choose the prime minister. The prime minister will name his cabinet. But in a further display of democratic process, the chosen executive will seek parliamentary ratification through a vote of confidence.

Sweiss has clearly surrendered any attempt to reflect on the efficacy of elections as a means for bringing about meaningful change, and the reality of the 2013 parliamentary elections as a limited exercise in political participation that contributes to the persistence of the Jordanian status quo—by which I am referring to the fundamental power relations that define the Jordanian political economy. There is not even the slightest pause at the fact that the regime’s prerogative to select the prime minister is one of the many obstacles to institutionalizing real representation and accountability in the Jordanian political system, to say nothing of his ability to dismiss, dissolve, and reassemble parliament at his own whim. What Sweiss claims is a “further display of democratic process”—the “parliamentary ratification through a vote of confidence”—is a practice that has been in existence since the early decades of the Hashemite monarchy, when the regime was first attempting to consolidate its authoritarian rule. One should also recall that the premiership of Samir al-Rifa’i, the fall of which was a key demand in the series of protests that were organized in January and February 2011, was ratified by a record-setting vote of confidence in both the lower and upper houses of the Jordanian National Assembly. If anything, the 2013 election display the success of authoritarianism in Jordan. Perhaps, then, what is most absurd is that such success is now touted as progress on the pages of the NYT and other forums.

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