By Ghazi Jarrar (twitter:@ghazijarrar)
This Sunday will see Jordan’s 17th parliament holding its first session. Last month, the electoral process brought to the country a sense of cautious optimism. The elections, which took place in spite of a boycott by opposition parties, including the Muslim Brotherhood, saw an acceptable turnout of 56% of the registered voters, or approximately 39% of the total eligible voters. And despite some accusations of fraud, the international observers (who were invited in bigger numbers this time) praised the Independent Electoral Commission for its organization of an orderly electoral process.
Regardless of the electoral process, the country’s political scene does not look very different. The new parliament consists of many familiar faces, and the country’s experiment with the national-lists has yielded little in the way of forming parliamentary blocs. Meanwhile, a significant portion of the opposition, most notably the Muslim Brotherhood, remains on the streets. And while these reasons may seem enough to denounce this parliament as incapable of meeting the upcoming challenges, a closer look would be useful before reaching conclusions.
Forming a government
This parliament’s most immediate challenge is the formation of a new government. Last month at the World Economic Forum in Davos, King Abdullah II asserted that the next prime minister would be designated after consultations with the parliament. It is still unclear whether the PM will be a parliamentarian himself. While having an MP for the job may send positive signs, the current district-level law has produced MPs that represent very narrow constituencies. This, coupled with the lack of sizeable political blocs in the national-lists, means that the parliament is hardly capable of presenting an agreed upon candidate. Additionally, the lack of concrete blocs will make agreeing on a person with a well-defined political orientation (for example an Islamist or a Leftist) difficult to achieve. It appears that the likely scenario would be to appoint a reputable figure, not unlike the current PM Abdullah al-Nsour, or former PM Awn al-Khasawneh. In fact, these two names have been rumored as potential candidates.
A step in the right direction?
While the next government will not (and could not) be entirely parliamentary, the regime insists that this parliament is a step in the direction of party politics. But the painful truth is that elections remain dominated by family and tribal associations. Indeed, any hope that the introduction of twenty-seven national-list seats would produce meaningful political blocs dissipated as soon as the results came out. With the majority of the national-list seats going to the heads of scattered lists, the twenty-seven seats do not look very different than the district seats. Having said this, a number of MPs have been busy forming parliamentary blocs. A few blocs were formed last week. In theory, the formation of these blocs is a positive step. However, given that they bring together individuals, rather than parties, these blocs are unlikely to be more than loose associations. The weeks ahead will put the coherence of such blocs to the challenge. To be sure, most of these blocs were formed with an eye to the House’s speakership, and only time will show whether the blocs will be coherent in the long run.
‘Reaching across the isle’
Reaching out to the opposition will be another significant challenge for this parliament. Despite introducing 93 new faces, the elections left two important groups completely unrepresented. The first is al-Hirak, the Jordanian reform movement. Most of the movement’s members boycotted the elections, although some ran unsuccessfully as a national list. While the regime has made attempts to sit down with representatives of al-Hirak, members of this grass-root movement remain very unsatisfied with the pace of reform. The second group is the Muslim Brotherhood. The MB boycotted the elections, but is still committed to top-down reform. The regime appears to have reached an impasse with the Brotherhood, but the country would fair much better if dialogue is re-established. Potentially, certain MPs could use their networks to revive dialogue, such as those with an Islamic orientation and close ties with the Brotherhood. Dialogue will be especially important when it is time to discuss pivotal issues, such as the next election law. This being said, the fierce competition the Brotherhood could bring to future elections may discourage MPs from playing such roles.
A major reason for disagreement with the opposition is the electoral law. The law remains one of the most polarizing issues, and a significant upcoming challenge. On the district level, the single non-transferable vote system (SNTV) is still in place. This controversial law gives greater leverage to independent candidates, and stands in the way of functioning party politics in the kingdom. Many Jordanians are skeptical of this parliament’s willingness/ability to seriously change the law. The law, after all, was their pathway to the parliament.
Taking on corruption
Jordanians have not yet forgiven the previous parliament for acquitting ministers connected with the “Phosphate Case” and the “Casino deal.” Even before this parliament convenes, Jordanians have reasons to doubt the parliament’s ability to fight corruption. The parliament includes individuals who are accused of serious corruption cases – some are even related to elections. Nevertheless, anti-corruption promises dominated candidates’ campaigns in the election. The hope is that some of the elected MPs would, in fact, push for the re-opening of the corruption cases. If serious steps are taken, the parliament will automatically gain some (much-needed) popularity.
One step forward, and two steps back?
Jordan’s latest experience with parliaments has not been positive. In the midst of the regional uprisings, Jordan’s 16th parliament passed a bill to provide members with diplomatic passports, and another awarding itself lifetime pensions. The parliament became associated with apathy and its dismissal became a popular demand. In essence, the last parliament provided a textbook example of what not to do. On paper, this parliament looks slightly better than its predecessor – the electoral process was largely clean, almost one fifth of the MPs won without the controversial SNTV law, and, for the first time in years, the parliament could have a say in what the next government will look like. Still, a closer look demonstrates that the parliament is not fully equipped to overcome important challenges, such as changing the electoral law, or fighting corruption. This may prove to be problematic, because, as King Abdullah said, “The next four years is actually the hard work.”