How a Monarchy is Democratising

Photo credits: Middle East Institute

By Zein Lozi

Seen as the calm in the eye of the storm, Jordan has displayed marked resilience in the face of increasing regional tension. All four sides of the Jordanian border have been conflict-ridden for years, namely the Israeli/Palestinian conflict to the West, the Syrian conflict to the North, the ongoing Iraqi crisis to East, and more recently the tensions in the Gulf to the South. Perhaps the absence of political instability has made Jordan a stranger to the global mainstream media. However, its developments in the road to democratisation should not go unnoticed. Jordan has always boasted a policy of moderation, and has sought to “play only one role, that of a model state,” according to the late King Hussein. Recent constitutional and legal amendments have paved the way to democratisation through a parliamentary government.

While Jordan should be commended on its efforts thus far, there are clear obstacles that continue to stand in the way of effective democratisation, including the overwhelming lack of trust in parliament and the tribal patronage system of voting. This paper outlines some of the noteworthy measures the country has been taking, as well as the drawbacks.

The Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan, a constitutional monarchy, has been taking some active steps in democratising. King Abdullah II has published a series of discussion papers to guide Jordan’s reform process, the first being in 2012 and titled ‘Our journey to forge our path towards democracy’. In these papers, the King highlighted the importance of democratising through establishing a parliamentary government. Put simply, that would shift the monarchical role of appointing the Prime Minister to the Jordanian parliament. Much like in the UK, the leader of the party with the majority of seats in the House of Representatives within parliament would become the Prime Minister. In order to build a strong foundation for such an espoused parliamentary government, Jordan has understood the need to strengthen political life, through political parties, and to ensure free and fair elections of its members of parliament.

The commitment to free and fair elections was crystallised through the constitutional amendments of 2011. These amendments established the Independent Elections Commission (IEC), mandated with the role of overseeing elections. The work of the IEC has been commended by a number of national and international figures, including FCO Minister for the Middle East, Alistair Burt, who hailed the body for its transparency and impartiality. The European Union Election Observation Mission, which observed the most recent Jordanian parliamentary election in September 2016, also commended the organisation’s efforts. The IEC is but one of the two pillars for democratic reform identified above. The second, of strengthening political parties is also being translated from vision to practice. The recent amendment to the Political Parties Law of 2015 ensured both a more systematic and less complex process for Jordanians to set up political parties. This was done through reducing the number of people needed to form a party and through providing more financial support, among other things. The aim is to encourage the population to engage in political life and to build strong and effective political parties, which can then lead to a strong parliamentary government. Indeed, the most recent election of September 2016 saw a record number of female MPs (20 out of 130 seats), as well as the win of the first secular movement, the Ma’an (“Together”) List.

Having said this, some major drawbacks remain that warrant justifiable scepticism of the reform process. A poll published in 2016 found that an overwhelming 87% of the Jordanian population believe that the 2013-2016 parliament hasn’t accomplished anything noteworthy. Prior to the most recent elections of September 2016, former Foreign Minister Marwan Muasher told Al-Monitor that “there is a noticeable indifference toward the elections”. The same Al-Monitor article rightly noted that “it is difficult to divorce the weak economy from attitudes about the parliament and therefore the elections”. Youth unemployment in Jordan stands at an alarming 34%. “People feel manipulated, and they see [elections] as repetition of the same thing and done for someone else’s benefit,” Naseem Tarawnah, author of the popular Jordanian political blog Black Iris, told Al-Monitor. On the whole, there seems to be a trust deficit between Jordan’s people and its political institutions. Indeed, the same poll shows that 70% of the population has little or no confidence in parliament.

Another noteworthy issue in Jordanian elections are tribal affiliations. Because of the existence of a strong tribal culture in Jordan, the phenomenon of people casting their votes based on tribal alignments rather than candidates’ qualifications is prevalent. An article publishedin the Middle East Institute argues that even in the most recent elections, the tribal patronage system still exists. Amendments to the Jordanian electoral law in 2016 abolished the one-person-one-vote system and instead introduced electoral lists. This move, in theory, would strengthen political parties, and encourage the formulation of collective and constructive political agendas. Thus, it would result in a move away from a tribal patronage system, and encourage both voters and candidates to choose lists that most fit their political ideologies. However, according to Muasher, “it is clear in most districts that lists are not going to be formed according to ideology but rather by tribal affiliation”.

Whilst the Jordanian reform agenda seems promising on paper, the roadblocks still in place call for more bottom-up initiatives. In order to establish an effective parliamentary government, tribal approaches to voting and the lack of trust people have in their political institutions need to be addressed. It is important to have the framework that the King outlined in his discussion papers in place as a guiding principal. It is also commendable that there are empirical policies in place to facilitate the road to democratisation. However, in order to compliment the thus-far top-down approaches, bottom-up effort that aims at educating and further engaging the population is needed. A more educated, exposed, and politically aware population is key for a sustainable democratic system and a successful reform process. The arguably justifiable lack of trust in political institutions also needs to be rectified. Institutionalising further transparency and accountability measures to counter corruption and improve economic conditions may prove futile in the realisation of an effective democratic system that works to serve the needs of all Jordanians alike.


About the author:

Zein Lozi joined Caabu as an intern after completing her MSc in International Relations from the LSE with distinction.