Wednesday, December 14, 2005

Some good ole' political sciences

As I may have told you already, my landlord, Malek, is running for Jordanian parliament next year. Admittedly a political science geek, I am always eager to engage him about the Jordanian political system. The differences between ours are fascinating, and it makes you realize the length of time it took for our own system to develop and the numerous adjustments that have been made to improve it. Of course, there are many aspects that could and probably should change (in my opinion, ending the electoral college and granting proportional representation, to name a couple), but we’ve got it down pretty good; then again, it’s 200 years in the making. For Jordan, elections are far less significant, as the King retains ultimate authority. In fact, they can seem to be mere exercises for the elected to place members of their own tribe in government jobs. In some ways, the influence of the Muslim Brotherhood (more on them later) is the only real ‘challenge’ to the government, as they offer the only alternative to the pro-government folks.

The Lower House of Jordan’s parliament (the Upper House is appointed by the king) consists of 110 members. In previous elections, all of these parliamentarians were elected according to their district. Jordan is made up of 12 districts and a specified number of representatives were elected from each district, depending on its size. Thus, Amman was allotted the most seats, followed by Irbid and Zarqa. In essence, these elections consisted of large families/tribes putting out a candidate from their tribe, causing the parliament to be comprised of members of various families/tribes. Jordan, by the way, seems to be one of the most tribal societies not in the third world. In a sense, therefore, this system was representative, as each community placed representatives from their most powerful tribes in the government. However, the candidate’s qualities, what he/she had to offer the local community and Jordan as a whole, had very little to no bearing on the overall election process. It basically meant that the most prominent and largest tribes placed their members in the Jordanian government, furthering their own interests. It also served to keep the parliament, a group which deals almost exclusively with domestic affairs (although their decisions carry some clout in foreign policy), extremely loyal to the government. With no national candidates to campaign on a broader platform, the representatives were essentially, as Malek calls them, “sons of the Kingdom.” In fact, with the notable exception of the Muslim Brotherhood, political parties are banned in Jordan.

The only group to provide any challenge to this tribalistic structure of representation is the Muslim Brotherhood, although they currently hold a mere 23 of the 110 seats. The Brotherhood, which is fairly moderate in Jordan, nevertheless, tends to oppose support of the US and Israel. As in most pro-US countries in the Middle East, they are extremely popular, especially in the poorer areas of society, but also in many of the professional associations. Of course, they are able to advertise themselves in mosques around Jordan, which is probably the ultimate way to campaign (perhaps in a manner similar to the Evangelical Right in the US). Unlike in other pro-US states, however, the government of Jordan holds a large degree of popular support, certainly amongst these Jordanian tribes, the “sons of the Kingdom.” If there were completely free elections, the Brotherhood wouldn’t win in a landslide, like in Egypt. They probably would not win at all. But in the past, despite this election system, the Brotherhood has achieved some election success, even holding the positions of 3 ministers in a few governments.

Well, the election laws have changed, (according to Malek) largely at the behest of certain members of the current parliament, the Brotherhood, the Jordanian populace, and (to our credit) the US. For this upcoming election, there will remain 110 parliamentarians, although 40 will now come from a general election. 70 seats will represent the various districts as before, but these other 40 will be elected in national elections. At first thought, this may not seem significant; but it certainly has the potential to shake things up a bit. With these 40 seats, no tribe is large enough to attract enough ‘tribal votes’ to win; these candidates must actually rely on some campaigning. So, who has enough political clout to win in national elections? Hmmm, the Muslim Brotherhood of course! Suddenly, their power in the government goes from 23 seats to probably double that or more (out of 110), which would force the Jordanian government to take them much more seriously. Malek admitted that this new law is also quite beneficial for him as a candidate. Under the new system, his name recognition, as well as the respect people have for him, almost assures him victory in the national, tribe-free, elections. It’s funny though (or perhaps discouraging)…when I ask him if he will win, he NEVER says anything about his qualifications or his political ideas, other than the fact that he’s pro-monarchy. Only, “I know people all over this country, and they love me.” Malek is a self-declared “son of the Kingdom,” firmly backing the king, someone who has even gone on official visits to Israel- he’s hardly a radical. He told me that if it seems that the Brotherhood will take too many seats, the government will “do something” to make that impossible, implying they’d fix votes. I guess this is only one small step towards democracy.

Jordan’s political situation must, of course, be viewed within a larger context. The US continues to face the same fundamental tension of hoping to promote democracy and political reform, yet fearing the consequences of opening up the system. Within the societies of many of our closest Middle Eastern allies (especially Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Jordan, and now Iraq), Islamic parties might win; in some of those cases, they certainly would. In general, this might not constitute a problem. However, given the current prevalence of anti-US sentiment in many of these societies due to the extreme unpopularity of recent US actions, such as the war in Iraq and our unwavering support for the far right government in Israel, perhaps this fear is now legitimate. On the one hand, I do believe that all societies should have the right to choose their rulers. This is an end, a good in and of itself, greater than the end of maintaining regimes which support the US. In addition, the policy of encouraging (even if only tacit encouragement) our allies to suppress these Islamic parties, to reject democracy, seems a bit short-sighted. Unfortunately, these tensions are unlikely to soon disappear and merely suppressing the opposition will not ultimately work. On the other hand, the idea of an Islamic government coming to power in, say Egypt, is legitimately disconcerting. What if they withdrew from the peace treaty with Israel, for example? This could lead to renewed warfare, further refugee problems, and a far more volatile region. Then again, for how long can we avoid the problems?! The following quote from an excellent Middle East textbook by William Cleveland describes the direction the US has tended to take thus far: “By constructing a policy framework that viewed all Islamic movements within the narrow context of US security interests and antiterrorist measures, the US distanced itself from the genuine popular movements within the Islamic states and created barriers to its ability to work with the forces that might well shape global Islam…it was reduced to ignoring its stated preference for institutionalizing democracy and to shoring up authoritarian rulers who accepted US hegemony in the Middle East but whose domestic policies threatened to promote popular upheavals against them and their superpower ally.”

In general, I think we must encourage political reform, even if in small steps. The reform in Jordan is a small step, but a good one. It will be interesting to see the election’s results and effects, especially in terms of the Brotherhood. One thing, however, seems certain: Malek will win, and he is not afraid to predict it!


Blogger Jazzy J said...

Oooh. Institutionalizing democracy. Gotta gets me some of that. You know just how to get me going. The post could have used a "hegemony" here or there but I'll overlook that.
Indeed, the dreaded crisis of culture (secular/Christian west v. Islamic east) could probably have been eased with a better understanding and even backing of moderate Islamic movements. Unfortunately, I don't see the US changing course on this anytime soon, and the longer it waits, the harder it will be to bridge the gap if and when it arises. Though it was happening internationally, it's now becoming apparent closer to home, within western countries themselves. Islam, unfortunately, fits too well into the racial & economic box we've made for immigrants. Just look at France and Austrailia. I wouldn't be surprised to hear of riots in Dearborn, MI or elsewhere in the US anytime soon. All this to say, hopefully we can avoid major problems with a little TLC (not the band).

10:10 AM

Blogger tex said...

Ahlan Robin,

Two questions:

1. Why is breaking up the tribal representation a bad thing? It seems to be a possibly relevant alternative to Western republicanism that would provide some of the same benefits (I'm thinking particularly of stability) without importing a supposedly foreign idea.

2. How is the ability of a people to choose their own ruler an unconditional good? It seems that it might be quite bad if it ultimately led to the suppression of those people, the destruction of societies that came in contact with those people, or the destruction of that society when it rubbed a more powerful society the wrong way.

Bet you didn't expect me to be reading your blog.

~Taht im-Maya

6:04 PM


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