Jordan’s Municipal Elections And The Questions We Should Be Asking

municipatribes

It seems every time elections role around, the so-called public “debate” tends to center on whether to vote or not. In an Arab Spring context, Jordanian elections have faced their own polarization, with boycotts becoming synonymous with one being in “the opposition” and the “opposition” being synonymous with “Islamist”. True, this connection borders on the ridiculous, however, given that the largest political opposition group in the country remains the Muslim Brotherhood, the boycott spotlight tends to be a black hole, sucking in anyone and everyone, regardless of their political leanings. Nevertheless, defining all boycotters as “Islamist” is no more true than defining all voters as “loyalists”. Arguing about who’s right and who’s wrong is even worse, and those that seem to engage in such ludicrous exercises have more interest in seeing one side lose than they are in actual political progress or reform. In other words, it is not a “debate” but a distraction. A distraction from the real questions we should be asking: have things changed?

Has the nature of our political system, specifically on the municipal level, changed?

Over the years, municipalities have gone through an oceanic movement between centralization and decentralization. In the context of the latter, municipal elections are actually just as, if not more important than parliamentary elections – which have, in recent years, become the circus act of the country’s political theater, and the source of public ridicule and disappointment. Why are municipal elections more important? In my opinion, at this point in our political history, the system allows for citizens to care more about the delivery of services over political representation. The lack of developed political parties, a defunct national electoral system that has a history of playing favorites, and various other aspects, have created an environment where the electorate is more interested in receiving public services than they are in aligning themselves ideologically. In other words, the people are more interested in ensuring they get clean water, stable electricity, local jobs, and proper infrastructure, than they are in seeing an elected government decide on national issues – be they of a domestic or foreign policy nature.

The political system is largely designed this way, and an electoral framework ensures it. To take it a step further, this system plays to on-the-ground demographic realities. With few exceptions, most cities, towns, and villages are largely divided in to areas where specific families or tribes dominate in numbers, and therefore every geographic area has an interest in seeing key services being delivered to it specifically, over its neighbors. At this point in our political history, Jordanian political thought revolves around the “me” over the “we”; the local versus the national. It’s essentially where hyper-local means hyper-tribal.

Attempts to amend the Municipalities Law have been so frequent over the past decade that it is difficult to keep track of its direction. At times it merged municipalities in favor of a more centralized model, and at other times, it has done the exact opposite. In 2011, under PM Marouf Bakhit, the Municipalities law was once again amended, containing one controversial article that allowed areas where 5,000 people lived to apply for and declare themselves their own municipalities. Suffice to say, this was met with a great degree of jubilation, so much so that after receiving so many applications, the Bakhit government pressed the pause button while it “reviewed” matters, which naturally lead to riots and highway closures by various tribes, in protest of being denied. Having your own municipality is synonymous with more services, and more importantly, your own seemingly independent tribal territory.

In short, municipal elections have become in line with granting tribes more political power at a very low cost to the state. It is perhaps closer to a contemporary version of Jordan under the British mandate, where tribes were essentially left to govern themselves, and mostly did so successfully due to the absence of national laws, or a modern society. Allegiances to the tribe superseded any other sense of political fidelity. Today, the spirit of that archaic system remains very much alive. Tribes still retain immense and disproportionate political power (locally and nationally), but more importantly, they remain a part of a political system that encourages and supports their tendency to be isolated and thus tribal-centric. And therein lies the problem. Watching a video of a 4th circle protest from early 2012, one tribal protester who traveled to Amman to voice his disapproval of the opposition, put it quite right: “what these people want is to have the son of another tribe govern me and my tribe”. It’s not an abnormal sentiment, but rather one shared by many. And so, the preference for the status quo is upheld.

Now, one might assume this is a good thing. At the end of the day, the system is merely catering to existing realities. If, say, 8,000 people live in one town and belong to the same family then doesn’t local representation simply mean a member of their tribe? And that’s a fair assumption. If the goal of the political system is to cater to the status quo and thus maintain it, then the system in place is essentially perfect. However, if the goal of the system is to reshape the status quo, or, in other words, reform – then the current system fails on several levels.

When the protagonist of the film The Matrix chose the red pill, he was probably half expecting his current reality to be changed forever – and so it did, and so he was forced to change the way he saw his world. If he had taken the blue pill – well, it would have made for a very good short film, but quite lacking in the story development department. If the Jordanian state is keen on genuine political reform it must, at some point, have to acknowledge the fact that for the benefit of all, the system must play a substantial role in reshaping how people think, operate and interact with public policy. It must, at some point, acknowledge that tribal realities can be changed when groups are forced to work together if they hope to keep the water flowing, the lights on, and so forth. It must, at some point, acknowledge that hyper-local should not mean hyper-tribal. It must, at some point, recognize its role in developing the reform story. And if it comes at the risk of tribal youth burning tires and closing down highways or access to towns, then it must also acknowledge its role as an enforcer of the law.

So, the question isn’t as simple as whether one should vote or not. The question is about whether things have changed or not; whether they are on the path to change or not; whether we are even being offered the red pill and a chance to face the painful truth, or simply being force-fed the blue pill to maintain our stronghold on blissful ignorance.

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