“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.