Pensions for MPs: A Case Study of Symbolic Steps Combined with Inaction

A couple of days ago King Abdullah rejected an amendment to a law enacted in 2010 which eliminated pensions for Members of Parliament. The King also sent a letter to Prime Minister Ensour outlining plans for broader reform of civil service pensions. The government-owned Jordan Times had an online article today which is entitled “King’s decision on controversial pension law ensures equality — columnists.” The article quotes several columnists who say that the decision highlights the King’s commitment to equality, incluiding Jumana Ghneimat the chief editor of Al Ghad, whom the article said praised King Abdullah because he “used his jurisdiction to ensure equality among all, noting that the decision is in line with his constitutional powers.” From the article, one might assume that the elimination of pensions for 150 MPs may lead to greater equality among all Jordanians, but don’t be fooled. No real reform has been made.

The last parliament had a total of 120 MPs, and the parliament that will be elected after the January 23rd election will have a total of 150 MPs. According to recent reports, the total pension expenses for retired elected officials (MPs, in addition to former Prime Ministers and other officials), totals only about JD14 million, and an estimate made when MPs voted to give themselves lifetime pensions in May of this year indicated an estimated total annual cost of between JD3 to 4 million annually – all this is out of a total budget of JD6.8 billion in 2012. Is this too much? Almost certainly, and it should be dealt with, but fixing this one thing does little to solve Jordan’s long-standing economic problems. It is like prosecuting one corrupt official while leaving the overall system in place. It does nothing to solve the problems with the system itself.

So eliminating pensions for MPs is a token measure if there ever was one – becuase (with the opposition planning to boycott the election) it will only affect those likely to dominate the next parliament – “Independent” MPs who are likely allies of the King to begin with. The fact that this decision was implemented by royal decree shows that nothing has changed. In this context, whether or not the decision was the right one is irrelevant – because it was made in a flawed manner, even if it was in alignment with the will of the Jordanian people. The decision to cancel pensions for MPs was a way for the King to earn popular support at a time when he has come under fire from protesters, without actually changing anything.

Real reform involves not simply pensions for lawmakers but the way that they are elected, and in a free and fair election voters would be free to chose opposing candidates if they did not like the pensions that MPs voted to give themselves. This is true reform – not the throwing of crumbs to the population by royal prerogative.

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