In the build-up to the 2010 Jordanian parliamentary elections (see slogans and posters here), a lively debate has taken place in Jordan about the efficacy of elections as a form of political practice. This article will discuss some of the major issues animating such debates, with a particular interest in critiquing the discourse emanating from the liberal elite circles in Amman (most represented by a diverse array of English-language magazines and blogs). The Jordanian liberal discourse posits the elections as an opportunity for change and development in Jordan, as it is framed within a teleology of progress anchored in neo-liberal reform and the expansion of the parameters of permissible speech. In addition, the liberal discourse frames calls for boycotting the elections, indeed the act of boycott itself, as indifference, laziness, and a lack of commitment. This is best represented by the statement, on the part of the Jordanian Minister of Interior, that today’s low election turn-out was a function of the pampered nature of the residents of Amman (who like to sleep in).
Rather than representing a commitment to change and a better future for the people of Jordan, the 2010 parliamentary elections are a limited exercise in political rights that contribute to the persistence of the Jordanian status quo, by which I am referring to the fundamental power relations that define the Jordanian political economy. Furthermore, liberal discourses on the efficacy of elections and the bankruptcy of boycotts serve two functions: (1) they obfuscate the place of the regime at the commanding heights of the government and the economy; and (2) they participate in a self-congratulatory display that disempowers movement for legitimate and progressive change. Indeed, any engagement with the issue of elections necessitates contextualizing it within the framework of an authoritarian system of rule and the varied programs of economic and political liberalization/deliberalization that have been implemented over the past two decades. However, this is precisely the context that is rendered invisible by Amman’s liberal discourse.
The main problem with discussions on the elections amongst Amman’s liberal elite is that references to the role of the monarchy are nowhere to be found. In November 2009, King Abdullah II dissolved the Jordanian Parliament (elected in 2007) and called for early elections to be held on November 9th, 2010. Such an act represented the second time in which the King summarily dismissed parliament since his ascension to the Hashemite throne in 1999. These experiences are central to those who are boycotting the current elections. After all, what is the point of voting if the monarch has the power to suspend, dissolve, shorten, and/or lengthen any parliamentary session?
Liberal Jordanian magazines and blogs argue that a boycott undermines the legitimacy of the incoming parliament and thus jeopardizes the alleviation of the country’s political and economic problems. Again, the monarchy is nowhere to be found in such an analysis. It is as if the existence of a “functioning” legislature relegates the Jordanian regime to a back seat of policy formation and implementation.
Such a notion is absurd for two reasons. First, one has to question the utility and effectiveness of a parliament in whose absence the passage of laws, the running of ministries, and the maintenance of order continues unabated as if the legislature were not summarily dismissed and a concomitant parliamentary vacuum left for over a year (this time around). Second, 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. These dynamics should draw attention to the ways in which political decision-making and policy-implementation are extra-parliamentary. While calls for boycott have focused on the 2010 Election Law, the issues above are also a critical reason for low voter turnout and public calls for boycotting elections. Rather than attribute low voter turnout to indifference, perhaps it is better to question the reasons behind such alleged indifference. How are legislative policies supposed to reflect voter preferences if those policies are structurally subject to the political and economic logics of the regime?
In terms of the 2010 Election Law, it is significantly lacking in the areas of transparency and representation. Such flaws are not the natural result of a work in progress (as some writers have argued) but rather an intentional strategy for managing elections. First, the lack of an independent monitoring mechanism has been a consistent grievance on the part of opposition individuals and groups as box-stuffing, ballot forgery, and various means of obstructing participation by specific candidate supporters have characterized previous elections. Second, the 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. Thus, certain rural districts have been awarded the same number of seats as some urban districts despite a clear difference in the population of those districts. Finally, there is the issue of a single non-transferable vote; this means each voter casts one vote for one candidate in the district in which the voter is registered to vote in. Various opposition groups have consistently criticized such a system preferring the party list system. In fact, Jordan is one of only three countries that have institutionalized such a system. The implementation of the single non-transferable vote system is also problematic in Jordan because, although the distribution of seats are based on the population of districts, voters can register to vote in districts other than those in which they were counted as part of the population. Combined, the flaws of the 2010 Election Law speak to an electoral system designed to handicap any opposition and empower regime supporters. Thus, for a Jordanian citizen who is opposed to the regime and its authoritarian system of rule, participation in the elections would serve as an exercise in legitimating as democratic that which is otherwise undemocratic.
Given the above dynamics, the call for boycotting the Jordanian parliamentary elections, let alone the act of not turning out to vote, was anything but an expression of indifference. Rather, it is a rational choice within an ongoing struggle to challenge the political status quo. Such a choice is being made by a number of individuals and groups across the political, economic, and social divide. While the Islamic Action Front (IAF) has been at the forefront for the call to boycott, several secular individuals and groups have also called for the boycott (including the National Veterans Committee). These facts highlight the absurdity of the claim made in one Jordanian article that “by not participating in the elections, these groups leave the space wide open for traditional conservative forces whose policy agendas may not be well suited for Jordan’s future.” Surely, the participation of the IAF would not block (but would rather further) socially conservative agendas. This is, of course, provided the elements of such an agenda do not contradict the political and economic logics of the regime. Furthermore, once again, the monarchy is nowhere to be found in such representations. It is as if the elections are a contest between conservative and progressive social forces, the outcome of which is simply the function of strategic choices and popular mobilizations.
The liberal discourse on the parliamentary elections is part of a broader liberal discourse on the inevitability of progress in Jordan. There is no doubt that Ammani editors, writers, and bloggers of English-language publications have begun to interject themselves into important debates. But to focus on the fact of interjection, rather than the nature of that interjection, misses the connections between the ever-broadening liberal discourse of Amman’s elite and the persistence of authoritarianism in Jordan. Liberal writers have embraced a regime-sanctioned space to debate and discuss issues that the regime is deeply implicated in: economic liberalization and its concomitant developmental consequences, relations between Jordanians of Palestinian origin and those of East Bank origin, and more. However, these discussions are silent on the role of the Jordanian regime. This is perhaps most represented in the “Power 30 List,” a listing of Jordan’s thirty most powerful/influential people. Published annually by Jordan Business Magazine since 2008, this list has never once included a member of the Jordanian royal family; not the king, the queen, nor any of their brothers, sisters, uncles, aunts, or cousins. Furthermore, the “Power 30 List” features analysis of what allegedly makes these persons powerful, including their education their professional positions, and their innovations. Yet none of these descriptions address the relationship between these individuals and the regime. The reader is thus left with the impression that such individuals are self-made through education, hard work, innovation, and a little bit of luck. Nowhere is there mention of their relations (through marriages, business arrangements, or strategic alliances) with the regime. It is as if the Jordanian political economy were a field of opportunity open to any and all would-be members of the “Power 30.” It is exactly this type of (mis)representation that is at the heart of descriptions of boycott supporters as indifferent, lazy, and lacking commitment.
There are those who justify such silence on the role of the Jordanian regime as a strategic calculation (i.e., not address the regime so as to maintain some space for public speech . . . which is better than nothing). That such a strategy actually guides the silence within Amman’s elite liberal discourse is highly doubtful. Yet regardless of whether it does or does not, I would argue that such a phenomenon serves to perpetuate the status quo by rendering invisible the ways in which power operates in Jordan. Had such liberal discourses addressed issues the regime was indifferent to, one could simply interpret the phenomenon as merely strategic with little culpability in dynamics that are at the heart of the Jordanian political economy. However, Ammani liberal discourse claims to sincerely address, analyze, change, and/or improve specific dynamics in Jordan that are the foci of regime involvement without so much as a mention as to the central role the regime plays in maintaining such dynamics. Herein lies the problem. It is as if liberal discourse is claiming that politics in a kingdom can be separated from the role of the monarchy.
While I do not doubt the sincerity of those who are participating in the 2010 parliamentary elections with regard to their desire for a better future, I do take issue with their tendency to question the existence of such desires amidst those who have decided to boycott the elections. Furthermore, I would hope that some reflexivity on the part of those progressive individuals who are participating in the elections would offer somewhat of a more nuanced perspective on political and economic developments in Jordan: one that does not render the regime invisible but rather places it squarely at the center of authority within the current configuration of political, economic, and social relations.