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Manufacturing consent in Jordan
A loyalist parliament may have been elected but at what cost to Jordan's social cohesion and national unity?
Last Modified: 16 Nov 2010 11:02
The Jordanian government may have succeeded in manufacturing consent - but at what cost? [EPA]

In 1989, the late King Hussein of Jordan ended a three-decade suspension of parliamentary life by ordering a general election and ushering in a new era of democratisation.

Two years later, the country's political parties signed a pact which included the state's commitment to allow political freedoms and the legalisation of political parties. In return the opposition agreed unequivocally to work under rather than challenge Jordan's monarchy.

But the pact, called the National Accord, has repeatedly been violated by consecutive governments, which sought to undercut the opposition even though no element within it has publicly or secretly worked to undermine the political system.
 
In 1993, as the Arab world moved into negotiations with Israel, the government formulated an electoral law that effectively provided wider representation for rural and tribal areas and narrower representation for major urban centres, such as the capital Amman and neighbouring Zarqa.

Loyalist parliament

It was therefore no surprise that last week's elections produced a loyalist parliament with little representation for opposition parties and candidates.

The results were also defined by the absence of representatives from the Islamic Action Front (IAF), the political arm of the Muslim Brotherhood and the largest opposition group in the country. The IAF boycotted the general election to express its rejection of the electoral law and the open rigging of, and security interference in, the country's last election in 2006.

While there have been complaints of irregularities in last week's vote - particularly vote-buying by wealthy candidates and claims of government intervention - they were widely considered to be an improvement on 2006 when acts of mass vote forgery and the illegal transfer of votes in favour of government-backed candidates was widespread.

The failure of consecutive governments to heed popular demands to modify the electoral law simultaneously reflects an official state of uncertainty and a determination to pass laws and economic restructuring without broad consent.

Squeezed between an unstable Iraq to the east and a potentially volatile situation in the Palestinian territories to the west, Jordan's position has prompted the government to establish a "legal" way to undermine the opposition's ability to have a greater impact on the decision-making process.
 
Broad opposition to the Wadi Araba peace treaty with Israel - an economic and security partnership - has further reinforced government restrictions, leading to a gradual decline in political and press freedoms.

The failure of the US-sponsored "peace process" to lead to the establishment of an independent Palestinian state has fuelled fears that Israeli-forced or compelled mass evictions will lead to an influx of Palestinians, affecting Jordan's sensitive demographic balance. At least 40 per cent (there are no accurate figures available) of Jordan's population are of Palestinian origin, provoking fear among considerable numbers of Jordanians that either a collapse of negotiations or a flawed Palestinian-Israeli deal would make them a minority in their own country.

Strengthening tribalism

Furthermore, Jordan's pursuit of a neoliberal economic model, under pressure from the West, has bred resentment as more of the population has been pushed down the social ladder by price hikes, the cutting of government subsidies for fuel and the privatisation of public services.

Over the past two decades the government has resorted to repressive measures to silence and marginalise the opposition and instead of dealing with political and social grievances it has sought to manufacture consent through a flawed electoral law and manipulation of the country's tribal structure.

But the law has proved a lethal weapon that has undermined pluralism and social cohesion. It has, for example, served to strengthen tribal prejudices as elections have become a contest among tribes to elect representatives who will further tribal interests rather than seriously tackle public policies and hold the government to account.
 
For while tribes have always been important in Jordan, the law has led to serious feuds - sometimes violent, as in the latest elections - among tribes who see representation in parliament as critical to defending their tribe's prestige and honour.

Tribal belonging has been solidified at the expense of modernity and social cohesion. And it has now become so strong that candidates with a political agenda find that they have a greater chance of electoral success if they run with tribal support.

In fact, many of the few winners with a strong liberal or oppositional agenda won their seat by travelling to their tribe's home district rather than competing, armed with a political and social platform, in the capital. This has obstructed the formation of political coalitions and blocs.

In Amman, voting has historically has been less defined by tribal belonging and more by political platforms. But the law has successfully limited the number of political candidates, especially after a new "virtual redistricting" of the capital guaranteed a division of candidates in a way that blocked the chances of political parties.

In other words, the government has gerrymandered voting districts so as to scatter political votes and give an advantage to tribal candidates over their issue-driven counterparts.

Divide and rule

In the cases of Amman and Zarqa, the law did not only aim at marginalising urban voters but also at limiting the number of Palestinian members of parliament and weakening the power of Palestinian voters - the majority of whom have traditionally voted for the Islamic Action Front or leftist and pan-Arab nationalist candidates.

This combination of a restrictive law and government policies that seem the favour the rich has created social divisions and fuelled tensions between Jordanians and Palestinians.

Instead of nurturing a healthy debate and healing rifts, consecutive governments have, to varying extents, played a dangerous game of divide and rule.

This is not to say that none of the 120 parliamentarians who won in last week's election will prove to be efficient or strong representatives of the public interest. But it is a largely loyalist parliament and the government has once again sent Jordan's population a clear message - it will do what it wants regardless of public grievances.

The government may have again succeeded in manufacturing consent but it will come at a high price - an atmosphere of mutual suspicion that undermines national unity and social cohesion at a time when Jordan needs to confront tremors of regional instability.

Lamis Andoni is an analyst and commentator on Middle Eastern and Palestinian affairs.

The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera's editorial policy.

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