Saturday, September 29, 2007

Leftists and the upcoming elections

Parliamentary elections are scheduled for next November. So, to get people into the spirit, I hope to outline some of the important things to look for as the picture evolves. I will outline the major trends and choose a few races that I think are interesting.

Needless to say, most people don’t expect these elections to change anything. However, it is important to point out that people, not elections, are responsible for change. Therefore, it is easier to complain than to actually do something.

One of the most poorly explored aspects of Jordanian politics is the best mechanism to break the duopoly between the conservative tribal network and the conservative religious movement as expressed by the Muslim Brotherhood and their IAF. The seeming rivalry between these two poles leaves little room for the development of more progressive political expressions in the country.

This has not been helped by the leaders of Leftist and pan-Arabist parties, who for too long have had little to do with local political problems in Jordan, resulting in a bizarre fetishization of all things dark and dictatorial in our Arab surroundings.

Nahid Hattar discusses the place of Islamists in relation to the other opposition forces in his article today, with sharp criticism of the rise of economic liberalism as the dominant economic paradigm that has gone unchallenged by the Islamists. He sees this as being mostly due to Islamists’ belief in this paradigm and because they benefit greatly from it. He screws up in the end where he practically begs the Islamists to change their beliefs and team up with leftist movements for the upcoming parliamentary elections. It seems that there is a push towards announcing a joint slate of candidates between the IAF and the leftists. So, while social consciousness and political inclusion need to find credible voices in the country’s political mix, would be leftists are more interested in creating alliances that would bring them short term benefits than actually making a noticeable change in the political discourse here. Despite this, his call for the return of effectively right wing socialist policies of the 1970’s and 1980’s is both unique and thought provoking.

Two years ago, the National Agenda Committee was supposed to outline the best course for political, social and economic reform in the country. At the time, I was skeptical about how reform can be imposed outside the parameters of the agreed upon constitutional system. Sure enough, attempts to do this failed, and we are where we are. The “reformers” have been sidelined, and we are now dealing with politicians with vested interest in keeping the status quo. This is perpetuated by using the politics of fear and exclusion. Leftists are the obvious escape from this situation, if they can live up to their role.

So, is there a possibility that this can change? I believe that progressive politicians need to find a coherent and unified voice. They need to discuss people’s problems, explore realistic solutions and generally embrace a tough confrontation with both branches of the political right. If they look for a few crumbs from the Islamists’ table, as Hattar wants, then they will continue their marginalization for another four years. The leftists and pan-Arabists did reasonably well in the municipal elections. It is their opportunity and duty to build on that.


Sunday, September 23, 2007

You’ve come a long way (back), baby

For a government that started its tenure promising to establish “freedom square”, it is pathetic to see how far back it slid towards authoritarianism.

This process probably started when they hid behind the parliament to enact a new press law that allowed the jailing of journalists (later “fixed” by the senate).

This was followed by the use of endless legal red tape to stifle the awaited launching of a new independent TV station known as ATV. After months of delays and excuses, the owners have finally given up and sold to new investors. Let’s hope they will be successful, both in launching and in living up to viewers’ expectations.

Along with the ATV debacle, there was the jailing of Ahmad Oweidi Abbadi for publishing some uncomfortable views on his website.

Now, the lust to control information and ideas seems to be spreading to electronic media in general. Today, the assistant director of the press and publications department has said that electronic newspapers will henceforth be under the supervision of the antiquated department. This supervision will also include websites as well (presumably including blogs).

Did I mention what a wise and compassionate government we have?

Labels: ,

Saturday, September 15, 2007

Political savvy, IAF style

Yesterday hundreds of people from the town of Mleih, south of Madaba, staged a protest against rising prices, corruption and falling standards of living. It is interesting to note that reports on this do not indicate the involvement of any political party in the organization or staging of this protest. Of course, this is typical.

So, what is the head of Jordan’s largest political party involved with these days? Well, he is busy halfheartedly denying saying that “those who live in […] marginalized regions are, with all due respect, people that are less knowledgeable and less educated, culturally and politically, thus they should not be the majority in the parliament”. This statement has infuriated many Jordanians, largely because this is not true. Apparently, Bani Irshaid believes that only less knowledgeable people would refrain from voting for his backward looking party. His denial is mostly an attack on Al Rai, which reported the original interview published by Jordan Business in English. Why not attack Jordan Business? Because Al Rai is an easier target and because they probably realize that Jordan Business has a recording of the interview. In a pathetic play of words, he denies insulting Bedouins, which is true. He insulted people who live in marginalized areas.

But my question is simple. Who has more political acumen? People peacefully demonstrating for better living conditions in rural areas or politicians who turn their back on the needs of such people and accuse them of backwardness?

Labels: ,

Wednesday, September 12, 2007

Ramadan and prices

Well, it is that time of year again. Ramadan is tomorrow, and we will have a binge of consumerism, laziness, self righteousness and bad temperedness cloaked in a disguise of piety. This is not the way it’s supposed to be, but there you have it. As happened last year, food prices have risen in response to increased demand. More this year as the dairy producers have raised the prices by about 40% in response to the raising of cattle feed prices by the government. This poorly timed wave of price rises has caused alarm, with even the king demanding intervention by the government to hold back prices.

In the old days, there used to be a ministry of supplies. This ministry used to publish daily the maximum price of various vegetables and fruits, and had the mandate to punish merchants who overcharged. The prices of dairy products, rice, sugar and other basic foodstuffs were also set by the ministry. This quaint system was abolished in the mid 90’s, as the country moved to a market economy where forces of supply, demand and competition would determine prices. Many people are nostalgic for the old days, although there is now no legal mechanism to enforce prices. So, what is the government going to do to alleviate this inflation?

What else would a government do? They formed a committee, of course. Then the PM asked the chambers of commerce and industry, nicely, to please lower the prices. Dairy producers agreed to lower their newly inflated prices by 10%. On the other hand, the cement company responded by raising their prices.

The government owns its own supermarkets that nominally only sell to civil servants and to military personnel. These supermarkets enjoy tax breaks and are cheaper than privately owned ones. This has often been a source of tension, as private merchants complain about unfair competition; especially that monitoring whether shoppers are entitled to enter is typically (and predictably) lax to non-existent. Well, now this pretence is gone and the government has officially allowed anybody who wants to enter to do so.

The government is also sponsoring open air markets to allow direct selling of produce from the producer to the consumer. It is not obvious how well this will work.

It seems to me that all of this is baloney. This interference in the market is a temporary fix that can not be sustained. If the government wants to help people deal with rising prices, they can tie wages with inflation. The taxes they collect go up with the rate of inflation, so it is not unreasonable to ask that wages go up at a reasonable pace to match inflation. On the other hand, peoples shopping habits, especially in Ramadan, need to be reconsidered.

May you have a happy and blessed Ramadan. And take it easy on the gatayif.

Tuesday, September 11, 2007

Trying to get the numbers straight

Today I read in Al Ghad a report on our oil imports for the first seven months of 2007. It is based on a department of statistics press release. It seems that we imported 633 million dinars worth of crude oil during this period. Now we are constantly told that we import about 100,000 barrels of oil per day. So, in 7 months we should have imported 21 million barrels. It is a simple calculation to figure out that each barrel cost a little more than 30 dinars (43 dollars).

Now, we have recently been through a carefully staged play in which we were told that the sky will fall in because world oil prices are over 70 dollars per barrel, and that our budget was based on an assumption that world prices would be 60 dollars this year. We were also told that we need to set aside 200 million dinars per year to cover this shortfall.

So, we are buying crude from Saudi Arabia for 43 dollars per barrel, and we made a deal with the Iraqis to buy oil at an 18 dollars discount (at the assumption that it is 70 dollars for prime crude, working out to 52 dollars per barrel). The prices are based on the assumption that the cost is 60 dollars, but since the WORLD PRICE is 70 dollars, we are losing 200 million dinars a year, despite the fact that we are not paying the world price. I hope that all of that is clear.

I have to go now. I have a headache.

Monday, September 10, 2007

An interesting survey

The department of statistics has released a new comparative study on income and spending by Jordanian families and individuals. The study compares income and spending patterns between 2002 and 2006. The study is based on a survey of 12792 families from all over the country. It shows that average income levels for families rose during this period from 5590 to 6220 dinars per year. At the same time, average spending rose from 6206 to 7550 dinars per year.

In 2006, 36.5% of the average expenditure was on food and tobacco products. Much of this was on meat and poultry (7.85%).

Non-food expenditures were dominated by housing (about 1200 dinars per year) and transportation and communication (also about 1200 dinars per year). It is unfortunate that communications and transportation were not separated out. It is estimated that cell phone revenues for 2007 will be 517 million USD (361.9 million dinars). Assuming about 1 million families in the country, cellular phones account for an average of about 360 dinars per year per family. 37.1% of households own cars.

The study shows that the wealthiest 10% of the population accounted for 26.7% of spending, whereas the poorest 10% only accounted for 3.3% of the spending. 36.2% of families have incomes of less than 5000 dinars per year whereas only 7.3% of families make more than 15000 dinars per year. The Gini coefficient (a measurement of income disparity) was calculated to be 0.399, up from 0.391 in 2002, suggesting more disparity with time.

The average spending on cigarettes is 270 dinars per family.

How is the deficit spending supported? The survey suggests that selling property covers 15.6% of the shortfall. The report also suggests that there may be a tendency to over report spending and under report income on the part of the respondents.

So there it is; a profile that shows the poverty, the affluence, and the priorities. In short, it shows what’s up in Jordan.

Tuesday, September 04, 2007

The case of the runaway budget

The government is preparing an annex to the 2007 budget, making allocations for an additional 500 million dinars in expenditures. This has been marketed to cover the costs of retaining fuel prices and livestock feed at current levels. However, the numbers don’t add up.

The government claims that keeping fuel prices as they are will cost 237 million dinars after not having any budget for this item originally. Some analysts think this number is inflated. Moreover, the lower cost of Iraqi oil is not considered. Anyway, despite these reservations I will take the number at face value.

I mentioned the story of the cattle feed earlier. It seems that a few months ago, the government held a census of livestock in the country. The counters colluded with the farmers to inflate the number of heads, ostensibly in order to increase the amount of any government payouts that may be given to herders. The inflated count led to the conclusion that subsidies for feed will cost 160 million instead of the budgeted 60 million. Of course, the ghost heads will not eat, and so the conclusion that this 100 million dinar differential is untrue. At one point, the lifting of the subsidies was expected to save 33 million dinars. Anyway, I will take the 100 million dinars at face value as well.

So, the increased expenditures according to the most pessimistic outlooks total 337 million dinars. So, what about the extra 163 million? The government simply says that this is for “other expenditures for which their allocations were not enough” in the original budget. How convincing.

It should be noted that this year’s budget of 4.3 billion dinars is the largest in history. It originally showed a 9.3% growth over the 2006 budget, with inexplicable rises in recurring expenditures. A 100 million dinar annex has already been passed to fund a modest pay raise for government workers. It is clear that government spending is out of control, as our public debt rose by over 200 million dinars in the first six months of this year. It’s no wonder that the former minister of finance got out of Dodge, although this does not relieve him of the responsibility for his role in this mess.