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What Jordan needs in a government today

Jan 06,2018 - Last updated at Jan 06,2018

This is the first week of 2018 and already we are beset with rumours of impending change within the upper echelons of policy making at the Royal Court and government. The change at the Royal Court is said to be necessary to accommodate the absence of the current Chief Fayez Tarawneh, who is undergoing treatment abroad and allow for the natural evolvement of key advisers. 

The government change, however, has been tied to an apparent need to select someone who is“less of a technocrat and more political” in order to respond to the changing political environment internationally and regionally.

In the 80s and early 90s, when I worked as a journalist covering government and parliament in Jordan, there were a few indicators that immediately triggered rumours of impending change of the prime minister. At the time, the position was alternated between Zeid Rifai and Mudar Badran depending on whether we wanted to improve relations with Syria or cosy up to Iraq, the Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO) and the Gulf countries. Later in the circle also expanded to include Abdul Karim Kabariti and Taher Masri who were also seen as foreign policy pundits with well-established contacts among regional and global powers. The choice of prime minister signalled to the country and the region where our foreign policy was heading.

But the world that a Jordanian government conducted business in during those years was much smaller, simpler and tidier internally and regional balances were clearer and largely binary in nature with established rules for political interaction. 

On the local level the population of Jordan was largely made of East and West Bank Jordanians and political realities and decisions were viewed from that demarcation line dividing up interests between the two population groups in a clear formula that favoured East Bankers for public and security posts and West Bankers for private sector opportunities or as expatriates sending remittances from the Gulf countries. 

The population of Jordan in 1980 was just above 4 million. Today, nearly four decades later, our population has gone up almost threefold to nearly 11 million and is made up of trans-generational Jordanians of Palestinian origin who know only their home in Jordan, Syrian and Iraqi refugees and guests as well as the “indigenous” Jordanian citizens who are now looking outside their designated areas of economic interest and are working to make their mark regionally and in the private sector in Jordan. Demarcation lines have become blurred and population groups are more fluid as they expand to focus more on economic interests regardless of nationality or origin. 

On the regional level, needless to say, each of these partners I listed above is divided into at least two competing power bases if not more: Syrian regime and opposition (in its various formations and contradictory alliances), Iraq (similar to the Syrian situation), the Palestinian authority and Hamas, and the GCC is dichotomised and feuding at best. 

In looking at this new reality, therefore, it is clear that Jordanians can no longer measure the performance of a prime minister with the same yardstick we used almost four decades ago nor can they continue to obsess about changing the “person” instead of really advocating for an elevation and improvement of the “governance system” — although governance has become a much maligned term here in Jordan — that guides our executive authority and other governing institutions.

Prime Minister Hani Mulki’s government, and I am taking the risk of becoming a target for criticism myself in saying this since it seems to have some quite vocal detractors, has worked hard to mainstream and improve its operational efficiency since the day it came into office. 

Mulki followed the directive of His Majesty King Abdullah to curb corruption and mismanagement of resources and funds and to reverse the escalation of public debt as well improve education outputs and remove formal and informal barriers to foreign investment in the country as a priority. In parallel, his government was tasked with rolling three national elections including first time decentralisation elections and balancing citizen livelihood concerns against budgetary conditions imposed by international funding agencies. The passing of a difficult and controversial annual budget on the last day of 2017 was an unexpectedly smooth grand finale to that year. 

The “political” element of the government’s work as evidenced in the handling of the three rounds of national elections and negotiations with Parliament with regards to the annual budget — although not perfect in the absence of a mature political party system — can be called a success.We should not confuse political, however, with foreign policy. The foreign policy of Jordan is determined by multiple authorities in the countries — including the security, executive and legislative authorities as well as the Royal Court in representation of the King. 

Therefore, I would argue, that the “technocracy” element of the government’s work — if we accept that any Jordanian government is formed based on that approach alone — is perhaps truly the litmus test of any government in office at this time of our history. It is where we need not only to look at the performance of the prime minister, but also of each minister as the “technical expert” in charge of his/her sector. 

Jordan, therefore, needs the government to operate under a fully transparent, accountable and decentralised decision making system to ensure that executive decisions are never subjective or hostage to the whim of the individual ministers. 

What Jordan now needs is not to change the prime minister in order to play foreign policy messaging a la 80s and 90s. What we need in fact is a truly technocrat executive authority focused on sector expertise and performance as well as smart “political” handling of our national democratisation process. Many Jordanians believe that, despite its lack of popularity among opinion leaders and some sections of the population, the current government is beginning to deliver on that level.



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