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Jordan held elections. It changed little

Even before the new parliament begins its first session, Jordanians remain cynical and frustrated about their place in politics.

Following the Jordanian parliament’s dissolution last summer, the country's authorities averred that the next elections would continue the royal roadmap of democratic reform.

"Reform" has been the royal buzzword since thousands of grass-roots protests roiled the kingdom during 2011-12, with major initiatives including constitutional amendments and a new elections law tied in royal discourse to a future vision of parliamentary democracy. Billboards imploring high turnout thus plastered the country throughout September, competing for space with candidate posters, while officials chastised boycotters as being opposed to democracy.

A boy rides past an election campaign posters in Amman on September 14, 2016, ahead of the general elections (AFP)
Also lurking in the shadows was geopolitical symbolism: by holding successful elections, Jordan could show the world it was confidently marching towards peace and democracy, even as chaos and conflict consumed its regional neighborhood.

More than a month later, public discourse still resonates with frustration about the state of politics. Many Western observers assume that Jordanians remain so angry and jaded because elections remain so biased. True, foreign monitors noted that voting for the nearly 1.5 million citizens who cast ballots on 20 September (200,000 more than the 2013 elections) was mostly clean and fair. And youth activists turned out in droves to observe the voting.

The real issue is the underlying political system which presents voting as “proof” of democratic participation

But as numerous analysts have criticized, the electoral process still suffers from a comical combination of self-sabotaging qualities. For instance, parliament has little real power, the voting laws privilege bickering fat-cats over political parties, and representational districts remain gerrymandered towards rural tribal areas perceived as bastions of government loyalty.

Political scientists could write volumes on how to fix Jordan’s flawed elections, but they would be missing the real problem. General elections come, at best, every few years. The real issue is the underlying political system which presents such voting as “proof” of democratic participation but whose unelected decision-makers continually impose controversial policies without any public consultation, as if the elections never happened.

This endemic paternalism drives the deep divide between citizens and leaders, which the circus of parliamentary elections periodically obscures.

Rooms full of grizzled political veterans

Over the past month, three public issues have embodied this disconnect: behind-the-scenes political shuffling, a gas deal with Israel, and educational curricular changes.

Days after the 20 September elections, King Abdullah reappointed Hani Mulki as prime minister and postponed parliament’s first session until November. Prime ministers are always installed by the palace, but this move raised eyebrows, given Mulki’s original appointment last May as a caretaker premier whose tenure was expected to end with the vote.

The new government of Jordan after a swearing in ceremony in Amman on September 25, 2016 (AFP)
The sudden return of the same government by fiat also contradicted past promises by prominent officials such as Senate President Faisal Al-Fayez, who predicted that in line with the roadmap for political reform the next government would be drawn directly from parties and coalitions in parliament.

Everyday Jordanians were – as usual – the last to know about potentially massive changes in the administration of laws and coercion in their own country

This was the first of many impositions. A special committee filled with grizzled political veterans was formed to evaluate the entire judiciary. Thanks to recent constitutional amendments that further immunized the palace from official oversight, royal decision-makers also shook up the security apparatus. Not only was a new military leadership appointed (one that is now opening a permanent Jordanian office at NATO), but directives swept through to restructure policing and intelligence operations across the country.

Such a move was long overdue given recent security breaches, including terrorist attacks and arms smuggling, but invoked neither legislative sounding nor public knowledge. Put another way, everyday Jordanians were – as usual – the last to know about potentially massive changes in the administration of laws and coercion in their own country.

The secrecy of the gas deal

The pernicious sense that citizens have no ownership over their own politics was validated by the controversial Israeli gas deal, signed shortly after the elections. While importing natural gas from the US-Israeli consortium has long been suggested given chronic energy shortages, thousands of protesters lambasted the way that the deal was signed in complete secrecy, with even the media kept in the dark. Even forgetting the near-universal antipathy held towards Israel, Jordanian critics also wondered why alternative sources of energy, including both natural gas and renewables, were not being considered.

A protest against a deal with Israel to import natural gas in Amman during October (AFP)
The truth could well be that taking energy from Israel is far cheaper than other options, or that there are greater political benefits or strategic payoffs at hand. The problem is that few state officials bothered to explain these intricacies in plain language, much less address the questions and responses of civil society groups at the forefront of opposition, such as Jordan’s Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement, on their own terms.

This foreclosed any popular input into the policy until after the fact. More than a few writers have compared this crisis to the 1994 peace treaty with Israel, another wildly unpopular initiative that was pushed through without any consultation with society.

When teachers burn books

Most Jordanians have also felt like mere spectators in stormy disputes about educational reform. In September, the government introduced new textbooks and other curricular material with markedly changed content as part of its anti-extremism strategy. This merited ferocious pushback from teachers and parents, who complained that the images and writings from the new textbooks downplayed Jordan’s Islamic heritage and appeared too Westernized.

The problem is the acute lack of input and participation into the decision-making process by those affected the most – in this case teachers, parents and students

Many burned the books in protest, forcing officials to defend the changes as neither violating Islamic heritage nor kowtowing to outside influences. Teachers staged sit-ins at the education ministry to register their disgust.

The textbook reformists could well have a point: there is ample evidence that antiquated curricula not only fail to teach critical thinking but also flow too easily into the radicalized anti-Western narratives espoused by Islamic State extremists. The shocking assassination in September of journalist Nahid Hattar, who had raised the ire of Salafists, hammered home the need for greater tolerance and pluralism.

Mourners carry the coffin of assassinated Jordanian writer Nahed Hattar in Fuheis on 28 September (AFP)
Among advocates of change is Queen Rania, who has long led the push to modernize the aging (and in many ways, failing) school system. But like other government policies, the problem here is the acute lack of input and participation into the decision-making process by those affected the most, in this case teachers, parents and students, most of whom were assured before the fact that any changes made would be minor. Vibrant debates have played out in newspaper editorials and online forums, but not in institutional venues that allowed key stakeholders like the Teachers Syndicate to engage state officials.

Opaque political machinations, importing Israeli gas, and changing school textbooks – these controversies involving political authorities, who are enacting policies without consultation, all exploded in the weeks following elections that were supposed to prove that democratic consultation was coming.

With continuing pressure from the public, it is up to the government, and maybe even parliament, to change this status quo

It is little wonder then that even before the new parliament begins its first session, Jordanians remain as cynical and frustrated as ever about their place in politics. With continuing pressure from the public, it is up to the government, and maybe even parliament, to change this status quo.

Sean L. Yom is Associate Professor of Political Science. His research broadly focuses on authoritarianism, democracy, and development in the Middle East and North Africa. He as published widely on post-colonial state formation, the dynamics of regime durability, and strategic implications for US foreign policy. He travels frequently to the Arab world, especially Morocco and Jordan. He received his Ph.D. at Harvard.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Eye.

Photo: A Jordanian woman shows her ink-stained finger after casting her vote in Amman in September (AFP)

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