“Jordan has to show the Arab world that thereâ€™s another way of doing things. Weâ€™re a monarchy, yes, but if we can show democracy that leads to a two-, three-, four-party system â€“ left, right and center â€“ in a couple of yearsâ€™ time, then the Muslim Brotherhood will no longer be something to contend with.” HM King Abdullah II in a recent Washington Post interview, on prospects of political reform in Jordan. [source]
This is a statement I’ve heard HM King Abdullah say on several occasions and perhaps lately more then ever. It is one that I have never been able to fully comprehend as it is fairly incompatible with what genuine political reform is, and what opening up to democracy means. While I agree with the King’s declared aspirations of “seeing” an environment of three to four main political parties, I disagree that this needs to be a prerequisite in order to transition to democracy. These moves to “encourage” parties to merge or disappear, in an atmosphere where little political party development is facilitated, actually puts our political paradigm closer to Serbia than anyone else. The latter nation not only raised the number of members for each party in order to decrease their numbers (just like Jordan), but charged a fee for each additional member to bankrupt some of these parties. I would definitely not be surprised if Jordan instituted a tax in the near future and I’m actually a bit surprised it hasn’t done so in the past few years.
That said, the problem to me seems to be this insistance that the state can shape the democracy it wants. For the life of me, I cannot recall a single state where that has ever worked. A look at many of the former Soviet republics in Eastern Europe shows that any transition to democracy is messy and requires a few eggs to be broken in order to make the omelet. That’s just the reality of what you’re dealing with and you either accept that or abandon the pursuit. This kind of theorizing that the existence of many parties doesn’t work and we can only establish a more democratic state when we have three or four parties is, shall we say ill advised, to say the very least, and goes against the grain of political pluralism, which Jordan, perhaps more than anyone, needs.
“I think my job is to lead the debate,” said the King. “I canâ€™t tell them to form a party, and I canâ€™t tell them how, but I can maybe just make them more aware of the challenges and the facts. That debate allows things to move in the right direction.â€‰.â€‰.”
His Majesty’s sentiment might be right but the implication of this debate requires a paradigm shift in my opinion. Raising awareness amongst political parties is not what forces them to evolve, and the King can host this debate for the next decade and we’ll likely find ourselves back to square one. Political parties evolve when the political arena allows them to do so. Transitioning democracies facing their first genuine free elections scramble to find a place in the new paradigm and evolve in a matter of weeks what they could not do in years under the old structure. They do this because the new realities force them to do so in ways that the old political model cannot. The need to merge in order to sustain their niche on the ideological spectrum and aspire to secure a governing majority is darwinian but that’s what it takes to survive under these new realities. Even in Egypt now we are seeing parties on the same side of the spectrum coming together ahead of any elections. And even in post elections, we will likely see alliances as is common in parliamentary systems. The fact of the matter is, this evolution is largely dependent on the electoral law, and proportional representation does tend to help fuel this evolution.
The short end of this is that parties react to political realities. They’re forced to. There are no incentives or even disincentives (taxing them for example) that will force their evolution than a free fall environment that threatens their very survival. So why is Jordan so eager to jump on the free market economy bandwagon but reluctant to apply the same kind of enthusiasm to political reform. If anything, the former has a much larger potential for a detrimental outcome than the latter.
Moreover, who says three or four is the magic number? If we are keen on showing the Arab world “that thereâ€™s another way of doing things” then why not promote political diversity? To me, this is akin to insisting that a fruit salad consist of bananas, apples, strawberries and nothing else – followed by an insistance that nothing else works, when history has demonstrated otherwise. The state should not be afraid of party fragmentation. Given the right environment and the right legal framework they will rapidly evolve or devolve, creating a whole new spectrum in a matter of months what they cannot currently do given years to do it.
So why the fear?
Looking closer at the King’s quote gives us a clue. The Muslim Brotherhood.
Again, for the life of me, I cannot understand this obsession we have of this organization. Not just by our officials but amongst many people throughout our society. In my mind, I see no problem with them competing for governance in a new parliament. This approach to forming the right kind of political party structure is done in an attempt to ensure the Islamists do not win. I genuinely do not think they can form a majority in parliament given the presence of a free election. They will form a substantial opposition party, but I doubt it can secure a majority. And even if it does, what’s the problem? Allow them to rule. You either accept political diversity or you don’t. There’s no middle ground here. We cannot logically aspire to a democratic state based on principle of pluralism and marginalize those we do not agree with. In my mind, I cannot see the Islamists winning a majority and even if they do, I do not see them governing for long. They will likely fail on a governing level and the voters will react to that. It’s supply and demand; checks and balances.
In any case, there should be a realization that not only is this fear of the Islamists imprudent and unwarranted, but that the “cure”, so to speak, of curbing the monopolization of parliament is by encouraging that which the state seems keen on limiting: political diversity.
If the country is looking to demonstrate to the world that there’s another way of doing things in Jordan, then we should be doing just that, primarily by encouraging pluralism, cultivating the right legal framework (specifically with the right electoral law), and then opening up the “floodgates” (to use the King’s word) for a transition that allows political party evolution to happen. If we really want to demonstrate another way of doing things in Jordan, it really has to look different from the usual way of doing things.
I don’t think the MB can actually win the majority of votes; they are way too unpopular at this point; the liberals will vote for anyone but the MB and outside Zarqa/Amman/irbid, people will vote for anyone but the MB because of the group’s conection to Hamas and a perception that they are Palestinian.
But even if they did win the election so what? They are way too incompetent; they will bungle the economy, investors will be scared, and the electorate in two years max will kick them out. Its easy to be the opposition; all you have to do is latch on to the latest grievance like a parasite, which is the way the MB functions by pushing whatever buttons are hot at the moment, but governing is a whole different ball game. They will also probably try to push some stupid laws like closing night clubs or bars, and waste time on stupidity and the tourism industry and Amman will be in arms, and that will be the end of the MB. You want to get rid of the MB, put them in power for a few years….
Thank you for that. Couldn’t agree more. Also, is it just me or were the issues framed very differently in this Washington Post interview than in HM’s speech to the nation a few days before?
Why the multiple discourses? Certainly the speech to the nation was more reserved (in terms of outlining his understanding of what ‘democracy’ ‘should’ look like). So how does one launch a debate with his citizenry, let alone lead it, if the contentious issues are bracketed from the conversation? And why are Western audiences privy to ‘visions’ Jordanian citizens are bracketed from (by address not access)?
Perhaps the question to ask is “who decides?”. Who decides what democracy for Jordan means, who decides how many parties, and who decides that the Muslim Brotherhood should not rule?
And if decisions have already been made, doesn’t ‘the’ debate become redundant?
Naseem, I must say, this time I disagree almost entirely with your post. The “vision” outlined by the king, of a small number of major political parties with high parliamentary representation is the godlen standand for all modern democracies. As such, I am baffled how you state that you cannot consolidate that with genuine reform and democratic ideals.
The new steps in politcal party reform are not to weaken political parties, but to strengthen them. Making sure that political parties have a critical mass that can amass supporters around it. Making sure that political parties are large and stable, etc. Many of the steps we are taking now, and the king is supporting, have been tried, and proven.
How can we have a majority government if we don’t have a majority party?
There is one big difference between the democracy in Lebanon and the democracy in, say, France. And that is that one of them is not a democracy.
It is not to anyone’s advantage, not even the parties themselves, to allow parties to form as easily as clubs.
But to reply to @Deena, there is still a debate. And there is a debate about what kindof democracy we want. But it is percisely a debate about democracy. The king’s statement on political parties and political devleopment is merely a synonym phrase for democracy, in many ways. But there is a debate about which parties should dominate, and which policies should dominate, and how to give the majority power in the government, and how to make the election law, and how to amend the constitution, and how restore the freedom of press, and how to promote truthful media, and how to battle corruption, and how to safeguard agaunst lobbying, and. and. and.
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@Eyas, with all due respect I think you are confusing “choice” and “debate”. If you are told you can have a chocolate bar for desert and then presented with Mars and Snickers bars and asked to pick one, that is a choice – not a debate. Even if your choices also included Galaxy, Milky Way, Twix etc, all you are doing is choosing.
A debate would mean deliberation that considers a range of desserts from chocolate bars to ice-cream to candy, and critical debate would mean giving you raw ingredients so you get baking on your own and create something entirely new. Both these options, to me, seem to have been decidedly excluded.
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Thanks for the comment, I guess we have some disagreement over wording, and with your analogy, I think I can make my point rather directly: I don’t think the current case is parallel to saying “you can have chocolate for dessert, now pick between mars and snickers”, but rather “you can have chocolate for dessert, which one do you like”. There is an infinite number of democracies we can implement that still satisfy the characteristic of being a democracy (that is, multiple focused strong parties, strongly represented in parliament, allowing majority-based policy to take place. It is not a mere choice of preference between these, but there is a real debate that must take place, and is beginning.
I think, however, what you are condemning is that the King limited our debate “for dessert” to “chocolates”, in the analogy. And I don’t think this is bad at all; one difference between Monarchies and other systems, that monarchists have always used in their arguments is that the monarch can act with his capacity as one act strongly as one person in his capacity as a monarch to impose certain restrictions for the greater good. Just as it is true that the Swedish Supreme Court denying the people-voted referendum on banning Minarets is a so-called “undemocratic” restriction of their choice, I think we all would agree that such would be for the greater good of all, securing more basic rights for others to worship. Similarly here, I do not think that the King was wrong in restricting reform to a ‘real democracy’, because in senesitive times like this, we truly cannot afford to go backwards. Nor is the choice of a non-democracy helpful at all. Nor is the debate being taken away, because a real, more interesting, and more valuable debate will take place if we limit the range of possibilities to real democracies only.
Also, I have seen this in other posts as well and I have a question:
Why are we assuming that the reforms are the reforms that the king wants, and that the debate is starting pre-decided. Dialogue has been going on for about 7 months now. Statements and demonstrations have been going on for around that time. Every political party released its demands and every group, NGO, and facebook group did the same. There have been committees debating and there have been talking.
Why are we assuming that the reforms are the reforms that the king wants irrespective of the state of the State? Is it not possible that the reforms that the kign wants are based on the calls of the people? Isn’t it true th at most statements and most political-oriented demands have been a majority government and prime minister? Doesn’t this direclty translate into the king’s vision? Why do we need to assume that the king’s vision is decided despite of national interests, as opposed to being based on it?
(My argument does not cater for the cynical “the king acts against national interests”. Because even if it were true, his visions are public, and we know them not to be as such.)
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I have to disagree here.
You do have a maximum of 3 or 4 parties to govern a country, especially a country our size and with the tirbal issues we have to deal with. A bigger number of parties and it all becomes shambles (as is the case with elections at the moment). I dare you to ask any Jordanian to name more than 3 parties. They won’t be able to name more than one. We have 33 for crying out loud, and people can barely name more than a couple (one of which is probably the IAF).
Your analogy of a ‘fruit salad’ is very weak. I can give you another analogy of making tea. This only needs three ingredients (water, tea bag and sugar), more ingredients and it would ruin the cup. You see what I did there? It’s easy to come up with such random analogies to support any point. They don’t really back up an argument.
Basically there is a reason why elections have been failing in Jordan, and why people end up voting for their tribe/a candidate from the same origin/an uncle/someone who pays money.
We need an election law that puts an end to this. As long as we have more parties than Governorates, things won’t change much.
I am actually very disappointed with this article.
You should be leading the debate of where to go next, rather than questioning the vision of a three party state!
Where is the coffee girl when we need her, “US$6 billion of USAID to Egypt misused”
tribal elections are the consequence of a pathetic political reality- this reality has to change as Nassim and others say. the number of parties should not be limited, but if the people and parties behave in a responsible manner(for a change), the many parties would join into larger parties; most claim they are somehwere in the “middle” anyway, so 5 or 6 parties is a reasonable number for people to still be aware of the poltical spectrum.
@ the free Jordanian
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Well, the problem is that you think the Moslem Brotherhood is a “party” that can adopt a “live and let live” attitude. You have to understand that to several groups within Jordan the MB represents a clan like group that is out to attack people who do not agree with them or don’t look with them. They may mean well but they speak the language of hate.
You might say that my opinion is too harsh, but I think the King is 100% right because the MB is not interested in democracy. They are only interested in dominating the minority. Yes, I am Christian and am threatened by what the MB stands for. What have they done to dispel this opinion? Nothing.
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To the ‘free Jordanian’: Not only did you ignore the question directed at you and failed to answer it, you blabbered on for quite a bit with no useful input whatsoever.
“Colonial powers this! Colonial powers that!”
And France/the US? What did they have to do with appointing the Hashemites as rulers?
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