Governance by other means

Elections election
(Photo: Ameer Khalifeh/Jordan News)
Jordan has embarked on what some might call the biggest political reform since 1989. That is, if we read the recommendations of the Royal Committee to Modernize the Political System. A hybrid parliament, comprehensive identity, youth and women candidates, energized political parties and redistricting electoral areas are among the recommendations. These undoubtedly will help build an open and inclusive government, though many Jordanians have already found governance through other means. اضافة اعلان

A recent poll by the International Republican Institute showed a number of unsurprising results: continued despair over the state of the economy during the pandemic, little excitement for elections and disregard for Parliament and other political institutions. This comes as no surprise, but there is an intriguing undercurrent in the data. It is a pattern many of us are familiar with in our own lives and communities. When government services are lacking, workarounds fill the gap: wasta instead of official procedures, reliance on family networks rather than elected networks, and airing grievances within neighborhood circles rather than political engagement.

While many Jordanians decry the prevalence of wasta in society, especially the older generation, in today’s world where we are supposed to be building a new, more inclusive and just society, we find that the younger generation is more willing to use their connections and social networks to get services.

When asked if it was acceptable to use wasta to obtain a rightful service, “something you deserve”, 59 percent of those polled said it was very or somewhat acceptable. However, a closer look at the data breakdown by age shows a stark generational difference: 42 percent of people over the age of 45 said it was very unacceptable to use wasta for this purpose, while only 27 percent of people under 44 found it very unacceptable; 39 percent of those under 44 found it very acceptable to use wasta to obtain services.

The younger generation, young families, university graduates, accept wasta as a tool to get services they deserve much easier than the generation of their parents. The younger generation believes it has a very low impact on the government decision-making process, with 62 percent of young Jordanians believing that they have no influence.

If voter behavior is expected to change, the relationship between citizens and the state will have to be redefined; a first step toward that would be through a more decentralized political system that enables local government and councils to operate on a semi-independent basis.

This was reflected in the same IRI poll where there is a notable increase in trust in tribal leadership compared to trust in formal political and civic institutions.

Tribal leaders are often more effective representatives of their communities than elected members of Parliament. Part of this is due to the weakness of Parliament, the role of an MP being seen as a wasta and employment conduit, and to the fact that centralized structures are perceived as being unaware of the everyday challenges of the average Jordanian.

While the Royal Committee to Modernize the Political System issued its 240-page manual on inclusive institutions (as they should be), Parliament passed a law on local administration which re-centralized many of the 2017 reforms, including removing local councils, decreasing elected positions on governorate councils, and shifting some budgetary authority and duties back to Amman.

Mayors and municipal councils were dismissed from their posts in 2021 and elections only took place two days ago. Citizens have gone almost a year without local elected leadership. They witness increasingly centralized institutions and declining service delivery. In light of this, Jordanians have  found governance by other means: familial instead of political representation, wasta instead of formal service delivery, and hesitancy in formal political engagement, all without formal government processes.

The trigger for this workaround starts with service delivery, and it all stems from the local level. If we want to engage citizens, the first step is to develop a municipal level where citizens can observe, influence and hold leaders accountable.

Jordanians are more inclined to trust their local leaders; 73 percent trust municipalities while 36 percent trust the Parliament, which can be the gateway to a more national and wider political participation. We should work from the bottomup, not the topdown. Meanwhile the royal committee tweaked a failing institution while Parliament recycled a local governance law that serves to further alienate an already disconnected and disenfranchised youth.

Town hall meetings, public forums, and community-based elections can be more effective than national dialogues and traveling ministers like we have seen in “national dialogues” before. It is easier to hold your neighbor accountable for community issues that an authority you hear from once or twice on social media.

We Jordanians have not withdrawn from governance; we have used governance by other means. Citizens need local level services and representation if engagement is to be fostered, trust in formal institutions is to be earned, and governance through government processes is to be instated.

The writer is an independent researcher and analyst based in Amman.

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