Prior to the elections in January King Abdullah said that he wanted to encourage the development of Jordan’s political parties, and has expressed hope that Jordan would have three political coalitions representing the left, right, and center. Now, almost three months later it is clear how much remains to be accomplished towards this objective. The current parliament has several political blocs, three of the largest of which are the Watan (Homeland) Bloc, the Democratic Gathering Bloc, and the Islamic Centrist Party. Of these three groups, only the Islamic Centrist Party can be considered a true political party (the Islamic Action Front is also a party but it is not in parliament as it boycotted the elections). Jordan has, in effect, a one-party parliament with the Islamic Centrist Party with about 15 MPs, with the rest of the MPs either unaffiliated or part of small groupings. It is not a one-party parliament in the sense that there is only one recognized party with all the seats, but rather a one-party parliament in the sense that only one entity represented in it can be considered a serious political party.
This has real consequences – political parties consist of members (and MPs) have bonds of loyalty that are stronger than those of parliamentary blocs, which can gain or lose members over minor issues. Supporters, who were consulted through primaries or another selection process over the choice of candidates, would thus have more of a vested interest in seeing the party’s agenda enacted (and for the government to succeed) even if individual measures were unpopular. The reason why the issue of electricity prices has become a deal-breaker for many in parliament is not just due to the unpopularity of price increases (Ensour recently said they would likely rise by 16 percent) but also because independent and tribal MPs depend for support on their ability to dispense patronage to their followers. In this case, with rural and tribal areas affected more heavily by subsidy cuts than urban areas, their willingness to maintain subsidies is a method in essence of patronage. This is not to say subsidy reductions per se are good or bad, but the subsidies are a burden on the state budget of which everyone needs to be aware.
A case study of the effects of this is the upcoming confidence vote that Ensour faces in parliament. Prior to announcing the new cabinet he decided that MPs would not be included among the initial list of ministers. This may have been a reaction to the fact that it took parliament so long to come to a consensus on the appointment of a Prime Minister, and then another lengthy period of time before a cabinet was agreed upon, but bypassing parliament cannot, in the long term, signify a healthy system of representative democracy. It also makes securing the support of parliament in a confidence vote that much more difficult – if MPs (even loyalist ones) are not trusted to be included in the cabinet, then they are much less likely to support the government even when it depends on their support in a confidence vote. Additionally, there are reports that part of the hostility directed against Ensour is due to the fact that MPs did not feel that they were consulted in the formation of the cabinet. There is also the ever-present issue of electricity prices which the three parliamentary blocs say is a deal-breaker if Ensour wants to receive their support.
Consequently, with Ensour saying that he is not going to rely on the support of regime institutions such as the royal palace or the intelligence services (which are also referred to as the “backup units”), he faces a difficult challenge in winning the necessary degree of support to be able to win a confidence vote. Particularly in a parliament that is elected under a system designed to favor independent and tribal candidates, despite the fact that these are the most likely MPs to oppose measures such as subsidy reductions.
Ultimately the present situation is a consequence of the long-term policies that favor independent candidates, who won a majority in the most recent elections. These candidates depend for support on their ability to dispense patronage, particularly to areas that are dependent on the state particularly with regards to employment. The consequence is that political and economic reforms become dichotomous – the economic reforms require “backup units” to implement because MPs will never agree to them democratically. Over the long term, the challenge this poses to the reform process is immense.