Sunday, November 25, 2007

A new government

The new government was sworn in today. There is a new prime minister, Nader Dahabi. But for some odd reason, it looks very much like the old government. Eight ministers were held over from the previous government, including the ministers of interior and finance. Also held over is Nasser Joudeh, who was somewhat upgraded from the position of spokesman to the position of “Minister of state for media and communication”, whatever that means. He is joined by another son-in-law of Prince Hassan, Ala’a Bataineh (minister of transport), who is doubly qualified, being the son of a former minister as well. This places him at an advantage over Sahel Majali, who is only the lowley son of Abdulhadi Majali, who once carried the same portfolio of minister of public works and housing.

Of course, nepotism isn’t the only criterion. Some were recycled from previous governments. Salah Bashir academic background will make him a perfect minister of justice trade and industry foreign affairs. And engineer Muzahem Muheisen will be a perfect minister of labour AGRICULTURE! These multi-talented people also have an advantage over Raed Abu Saud, who held the ministry of water in the past, and does not seem suitable for a different task. Maybe this time he will make more of a mark. If you at first you don’t succeed…….

There are a few new names that I haven’t heard of. I am looking forward to reading about their backgrounds tomorrow. Nobody seems to be in a hurry to talk about it.

Wednesday, November 21, 2007

New Prime Minister

Ammon is reporting that Marouf Bakhit has resigned his office, and that the king is planning on naming the current chief commissioner of the Aqaba Special Economic Zone, Nader Dahabi, in his place.

It is customary in Jordan to change governments after parliamentary elections. It allows for a fresh start. Bakhit served for about two years, which is a reasonable length of time by Jordanian standards. They have been somewhat rough, with a series of economic and security challenges. The economic challenges seem to be continuing, with the cost of oil being the biggest threat to the economy. The security threat was better handled, although this may have come at a cost of political freedoms and reform. The National Agenda has been shelved for the most part, and it may be time to blow the dust off of its massive volumes to see what might be done.

Nader Dahabi is the brother of the head of General Intelligence Department (mukhabarat), Mohammad Dahabi. Other, possibly less important, qualifications include having aeronautical engineering degrees and a master’s degree in public administration.

Essam Qadamani, who writes in Al Rai, has a nauseatingly fawning article on Dahabi’s achievements as Chief Commissioner at ASEZ. While the man may be able and accomplished, I would hope somebody will write about his weaknesses as well as his strengths. Ha ha.

Changing governments in Jordan is more of a sport than a functional necessity. The constraints on the office are large. However, an able PM with a decent team can and should make a difference. But in what direction? A better picture may be seen after the new cabinet is formed. Are we back to the reformers? Or will it be a continuation of the traditionalist approach of Bakhit? The mixture of having a military background and being the head of one of the most ambitious economic endeavors in the country is interesting.

The results

I am finally in the mood to absorb some of the results of yesterday’s election. Some were expected, while others were less so.

The most stunning result was the devastating defeat of IAF candidates. Only six of the 22 candidates won, and with less than stellar results. Azzam Huneidi (Amman first) came in fourth, trailing behind Khalil Attieh, Ja’afar Abdullat and Hassan Safi. This district used to produce two IAF deputies as well as independent Abdulmin’im Abu Zant, who was a member of the IAF until he was dismissed from the movement after he defied the boycott decision in 1997. Mohammad Haj (Zerqa fourth) was dismissed from the movement this year after running without the IAF nomination. He beat the IAF candidate, Ja’afar Hourani in that district. No IAF candidate won in either Zerqa or Irbid.

Most of the old fixtures such as Abdulhadi Majali (Karak second), Abdelraouf Rawabdeh (Irbid second), Mamdouh Abbadi (Amman third), Sa’ad Hayil Srour (Northern Bedouins) and Abdulkarim Dughmi (Mafraq first) kept their seats. The most notable loser from this group was Hashem Dabbas (Belqa first). Thus, the more notable and heavyweight deputies will be there.

There will be seven women in the next parliament, after Falak Jama’ani (Madaba second) won the seat of that district outright. Nariman Rousan (Irbid fifth) almost won the seat for that district outright, but came short by only 14 votes. Reem Qasim (Zerqa third) won after she garnered a sympathy vote following her husband’s death a couple of weeks ago.

The election was won largely won on a tribal basis. Mustafa Hamarneh (Madaba first) attempted to break out of this mold, with an outspoken, liberal, inclusive approach. He lost to Riyad Ya’acoub. So much for polling data. Mohammad Bataineh (Irbid first) tried a similar track, with the same results. He couldn’t overcome having two competitors from the same tribe. No overt leftists seem to be represented in the next parliament.

Candidates catering and feeding grievances of Palestinian Jordanians, such as Najati Shakhshir and Tareq Khouri (Amman third) had mixed results. Shakhsir lost (after spending tons of money) and Khouri won (after spending tons of money). It is not obvious that this message resonated very much. Of course, the feeling is there.

In all, I am optimistic about the results. Only time will tell if this is misplaced or not.


Tuesday, November 20, 2007

Armed takeover of a voting station

Ammon news is reporting that a group of armed men have taken over a poling station in the Jiza area east of the airport. They are holding the polling officers and the candidates’ representatives hostage and they are busy filling in ballot slips.

Taking things too far, I would say.


I voted

Despite my cynical attitude towards these elections, I must keep up the optimist side in me. This is why I went and voted for somebody I trust and respect.

The organization was reasonable, and I was in and out in less than 10 minutes. My name was checked on the computer, and registered manually in a notebook. My ID card was pressed with a raised star and and the bottom left corner was snipped off. This, apparently, is to prevent multiple voting. I wrote the candidate's name on a voter slip, which was signed and stamped, and placed the slip in a clear plastic box. About 30 observers representing the candidates were in the room to monitor what happened.

Good Luck to Dr. Hazim el Naser.


George Galloway in Karak

Ammon news is reporting that George Galloway has been seen campaigning for Fawwaz Zreiqat in Karak (First district).

It will be interesting to see if it will do him any good.


Monday, November 19, 2007

Why I’m not worried about “political money”

A number of observers have been wringing their hands about vote buying. Being the way that I am, I really don’t see what the fuss is about. This is not the first election where there has been buying of votes, and money is translated to political influence all over the world. It is consistent with the trend towards market economy and privatization. Moreover, there are a number of benefits arising from this phenomenon. I will list them here.

1- Redistribution of wealth.

2- Increasing voter turnout and participation.

3- This will allow the breaking of monopolies of large tribes. There is no fundamental difference between somebody being elected because he has a large tribe that united in voting for him and somebody who buys votes. Neither is elected based on merit.

4- Deputies thus elected will be free of obligations towards constituents. By paying up front, the deputy will be able to do his job without having to compromise his position asking for favors for his constituents.

5- It will free us of the pretence of farcical political participation.

6- Rafig il misa’ad btisa’ad.


Campaign almost over

The elections are scheduled for tomorrow. I am looking forward to getting rid of all of the banners and posters filling the streets. Aside from the visual insult, they are a constant reminder of the superficiality of our discourse.

What also hurts is that this visual pollution didn’t come cheap. Al Jazeera has reported that 150 million dollars have been spent on the campaign. At about 1000 candidates, this works out to an average of about 100,000 dinars per candidate. Obviously, there is a lot of discrepancy, with some spending millions and some spending a few thousand. Much of the visible spending is there for all to see. Other spending, such as transportation, food and sweets for supporters, and vote buying are less visible, yet still useful for circulating money through the economy.

Given that few candidates have much of a message, it is a wonder how much can be spent to say so little. The assumption being that the more you spend, the better the visibility and the higher the chances. It shouldn’t work that way, but Jordanians say “rafig il misa’ad btisa’ad”, i.e. hang out with the fortunate and you will be fortunate. The hope is that massive spending will give people a sense of inevitability. Obviously, this is a double-edged sward.

Big name candidates such as Abdelraouf Rawabdeh (Irbid second), Abdulhadi Majali (Karak second), Sa’ad Hayil Srour (Northern Bedouins) and Abdulkarim Dughmi (Mafraq first) really don’t need to spend that much, and they didn’t. Neither did the IAF candidates. On the other hand, Mamdouh Abbadi (Amman third) is well known, and still seems to have felt the need to have his face grace every electric pole in his district.

Anyway, tomorrow is near, and we will find out how effective all of this has been. If it is true that spending more money increases your chances, one wonders whether it is worth the cost to run. Let’s hope that it is not.


Saturday, November 17, 2007

Who knows the issues?

Regular readers would remember the debate over the income tax law last year, where the PM famously declared that “90% of Jordanians will be exempt from income tax”. At the time, the deputies didn’t think that was enough, raising the exemptions even higher. This led to the senate shelving the issue until now. Earlier, Adnan Badran passed an income tax law that was not particularly good, and this law was rejected by the lower house, and belatedly rejected by the senate.

I am reminding you because one of the questions posed to the parliamentary candidates in the Free Though Forum is phrased like this “In 2005, a proposal to modify the income tax law was made to unify the tax at 20%, regardless of income level. This was objected to in the senate. Do you support or object to such a law?”

Of course, the nature of the law was totally misrepresented in this question, whether it was referring to the Badran law or the subsequent draft. I went through the answers of all of the candidates on this, and none of them knew this. Not even Mamdouh Abbadi, Odeh Qawwas or Marwan Sultan (Amman Third), who were MPs at the time attempted to clarify the issue. Only Younis Jamra (Irbid first district) had a recollection of what happened.

Just so nobody gets their hopes too high.


Tuesday, November 13, 2007

Being cheated

Today I almost ran over a few pedestrians as I laughed and listened to Mohammad Al Wakeel as he read the morning papers. It seems that some candidates for parliament in Irbid have filed police reports on some charlatans who convinced them that they can use magic to force people to vote for them. After they took JD 50 per vote, the candidates somehow figured out that they have been cheated.

Now, it has been said that a sucker is born every minute, so it is not really surprising that such a fraud can take place. The fact that the marks want to represent people in the parliament is not surprising either. I mean, there is no evidence that high caliber people are being recruited to run for parliament in the first place. In fact, the caliber that we are seeing is mostly quite substandard.

What made me laugh the most is how these candidates have the face to show up at the police station and complain. Here is an imaginary scenario of what happened:

Candidate: Officer, I am here to lodge a complaint.

Officer: OK. What is it?

Candidate: I think that I have been defrauded.

Officer: What do you mean “you think”? Were you defrauded or not?

Candidate: I can’t tell for sure until the elections.

Officer: Why not.

Candidate: Well, these guys showed up at my headquarters and told me that if I give them money, they can cast a spell on people to get them to vote for me.

Officer: I see.

Candidate: After they took the money and walked out the door, they started laughing hysterically.

Officer: So let’s see if I understand. You wanted to use magic to deprive people of their free will to choose who they want.

Candidate: Well, yes, I suppose.

Officer: Because you didn’t think that they would vote for you if they used their own mind.

Candidate: Yes.

Officer: OK. Did you check their credentials?

Candidate: No. They did have long beards and they recited the Qur’an.

Officer: Were they other candidates?

Candidate: No.

Officer: Did they show you their ID’s? Any proof that they are licensed to cast spells on people?

Candidate: No.

Officer: Did they have any academic training in these matters?

Candidate: I don’t know.

Officer: OK. To recap; these guys showed up, promised to perform miracles, had no credentials and you trusted them. Don’t you think that this is odd?

Candidate: Well, this is what I have been asking people to do for me for the last month.

Officer: OK. We will prosecute the frauds after the elections.


Wednesday, November 07, 2007

Will the government cheat?

The head of the IAF, Zaki Bani Irshaid, is suggesting that the government is planning on cheating in the upcoming elections. His allegations are based on the refusal of the government to turn over lists of registered voters to the candidates. There is evidence that large scale voter transfers between districts have been allowed in order to help specific candidates. The voter lists have been previously posted and the deadline for objections on specific voters has passed. The government seems to want this question to go away.

There are also technical issues with the electronic linking between polling stations. These links are meant to allow voters to cast their ballot at any station in the district they choose, and to prevent them from voting at more than one station. The Islamists are concerned about the integrity of these connections, and that they may be manipulated to in fact allow multiple voting.

Added to this, the government seems to be reluctant to allow full scale monitoring by outside (local) observers. Today interested civil society organizations threatened to boycott the observation process, saying that the government will only allow them to observe from outside the stations, rather than from within the polling and counting places. They want the same treatment given in more democratic countries, such as Egypt and Yemen.

Now, the setup seems to be in place to rig the vote. It seems odd that despite the king’s insistence that the vote should be free and fair, the government has kept so many doors open for allegations of cheating.

Now, even if no cheating occurs, losers in the election will cite these questions to undermine the credibility of the results. But why would the government cheat? The IAF is only running 22 candidates, out of 110 members. Even if all of them win, which is unlikely, they will not form a significant block in the parliament (even if they collect 10 extra seats from ideological allies not on the IAF slate). The premise that the government will intervene against the IAF does not seem to make much sense (although the same could have been said of the municipal elections).

My hunch is that the government is planning to intervene on behalf of the IAF. The IAF slate was selected by top party officers and chosen as a message to government that they are not in search of a political takeover of the country. The relative moderates chosen were selected despite not being nominated by the rank and file of the party, many of whom are angry because of this, and are threatening to work against the slate. The government has an interest in the likes of Abdullatif Arabiyat (Belqa first district) and Irhail Gharaibeh (Amman third district) not be humiliated, as they still hope to keep a domesticated Islamist movement as their theatrical opposition. Their loss would again shift the face of the party to the more radical side.

So, there it is. If the IAF loses, they will claim that the government cheated, and if they win I will claim that they cheated. The best solution is to publish the list of registered voters, fix the polling locations and forget about the electronic link gambit and allow monitors to see what happens. In short, stop trying to act like a third rate banana republic.


Monday, November 05, 2007

Let them eat bread

Mary Antoinette’s famous words were “let them eat cake”, in response to protests that people had no bread to eat. In Jordan, this has been reformulated by the government, who only think that they should subsidize bread.

If you have ever been to a bakery in Jordan, you probably have noticed people carrying out LARGE bags containing various sweet and salty cookies. It is sad to think that many families actually live on dunking these cookies in sweet tea. A meager diet that nobody should envy.

It turns out that having people eating like this is a luxury the government can’t afford. After lifting subsidies on cattle feed a couple of months ago, the market was in an awkward position where flour is cheaper than animal fodder. Obviously, this was an invitation to feed livestock bread.

So, the government partially lifted subsidies on wheat flour, thus allowing subsidies on the basic large loaves of bread. Other bakery products went up between 20 and 60%. So the alternative for poor people comes from the government “let them eat bread”.

What better timing than when people are immersed in an election campaign that is totally divorced from the needs to people? In any other country, this timing would have been studiously avoided for such a move. Not in Jordan. Here, the disconnect between politics and the welfare of people is too painful to discuss.

Of course, distortions beget distortions, and subsidies cause distortions. I would submit that a teacher working for JD 220 per month is subsidizing the government. When will this subsidy be lifted?

A response from Professor Sari Nasser

I received this kind reply from Dr. Nasser, and as I promised I am posting it here.

I was surprised to learn that your impression of the Riz Khan interview was that I condone honor killing. All through my teaching years I have always stressed to my students that killing women in the name of honor is inhumane and despicable.
My former students could testify to this including Rana Husseini who has become a champion in the fight against this horrid activity.

In the Riz Khan interview I tried to show that this phenomenon could not be targeted by the enactment of laws alone. The problem lies in customs and traditions that seem to be stronger than the law. The way to eliminate this horrid practice is through teaching, raising people's awareness and through stronger penalties.

I really didn’t think that Dr. Nasser condoned honor killings, nor did I try to imply that. I simply thought that he could have mentioned “tougher penalties” in the interview as he has in this reply.

Best wishes to Professor Nasser and to all thoughtful and enlightened candidates.


Friday, November 02, 2007

Thoughts on the elections

There have been a lot of complaints on the level of discourse of the elections, and the quality of the candidates. Much of the complaints stem from the lack of participation of political parties (except for the IAF), with people blaming the “one vote” voting law for this situation.

Now the current law is pretty stupid, allowing people to win by receiving less than 5% of the vote. But, despite protestations to the contrary, this is not why there is little intelligent discourse related to this election. The reason is that there is little intelligent discourse period.

I have been complaining almost since I started writing this blog over two years ago that there is no alternative to the Islamists or the government that they oppose. Neither the leftists nor the centrists could not get their act together, organizationally or ideologically during the last few years. The only serious effort to discuss real political/economic/social alternatives to the currently prevailing paradigms was offered by Nahid Hattar. But despite his best efforts, his cries have fallen on indifferent ears. This is our loss, not his.

So, what does this mean? Well, it may mean two things. Either that people are fundamentally happy with the way things are going or that they are too frustrated or cynical to believe that anything can change. If asked, people will say they are cynical, but do they really want change to begin with?

I find it hard to believe that the 1000+ candidates running for parliament do not contain any candidates that can inspire people’s imagination. Not one of the 1000! Why is that? Is it truly because they are all mediocre thinkers and/or orators? All of them? Or, is it as I suspect that people really are not interested in fundamentally changing the status quo, and politicians understand this.

It is hard to tell. I will get angry comments on this post, but I really don’t see any real anger out there. Feigned frustration, yes, but true anger is not out there. If it were, one of the 1000 candidates would be tapping in on it right now.