Last Updated: Wed Oct 26, 2011 11:20 am (KSA) 08:20 am (GMT)

Jordanian new cabinet’s chances of success

Hasan Abu Nimah

In less than a year, King Abdullah has changed the Cabinet for the third time. That is quite unusual. In a parliamentary system, which Jordan supposedly is, the designated government should last the lifetime of the elected parliament.

The previous governments of prime ministers Samir Rifai and Marouf Bakhit won the required vote of confidence from the current parliament. Despite obtaining a record 111 out of 119 votes of approval about this time last year, Rifai was dismissed four months later. Bakhit had to step down after about eight months.

The situation before, when Cabinet changes were also frequent, was not any different.

 At this critical time in the country’s history, no prime minister, no matter how able and talented, can introduce rigorous corrective measures  

This phenomenon can indicate one of three things: the country ran out of good leaders; the choice of prime ministers has not been done properly; or there is something terribly wrong with the system.

Even before the Cabinet of Prime Minister-designate Awn Khasawneh was declared and sworn in, people started to speculate on how long this new government would last and how much of the challenge facing it would be successfully met.

The challenges ahead of the government are indeed tough. Placed against a highly complex and charged national and regional context, one would have to be overly optimistic to assume substantial success.

The list of adverse factors could be too long for a short commentary, but let me refer to the most pressing triangular dilemma: the economy, political reform and corruption.

The loud popular cries for changing the two previous governments were mainly focused on their incompetence in dealing with the dire economic situation of the country, rising prices, poverty, unemployment, as well as on tardiness in cracking down on corruption which, many believe, has been largely responsible for squandering the country’s scarce assets and therefore aggravating an already strained economy.

The third corner of the triangle represents political reform, the absence of which has freed the hands of successive administrations to resort to improper measures to address mounting financial difficulties by raising taxes and squeezing the poor for the undue benefit of extravagant public spending, and further enriching a small but privileged wealthy class. Real accountability was either completely absent or, in the best case, totally ineffective.

Despite considerable effort by the Bakhit government to introduce electoral and constitutional reform, a lot more ground on this front has yet to be covered. Bakhit’s record in fighting corruption, on the other hand, was not that convincing.
This, with many other factors, has further eroded people’s confidence in their rapidly changing governments.

Popular relief at the departure of the former administration places a huge burden on the incoming one. Khasawneh is expected to do better, much better, in handling the crisis and in meeting not only reasonable and possible demands, but also highly exaggerated ones.

Begin with the economy. The first prerequisite for reducing the rising budget deficit and the compounded consequences of that will likely be austerity measures.

That may involve additional taxes and higher prices on energy products in particular. How could the Jordanian population receive such vastly unpopular measures at a time when they oriented themselves to expect the exact opposite from the new government?

Bakhit had indeed engaged in appeasement at the expense of the long-term interests of the country. He did not have the courage to confront the people with the harsh reality: “This is what we can afford and accordingly what we can offer.” He resorted to transferring problems forward and to delay solutions to evade the reality. And yet, appeasement did not work.

It helped to temporarily disguise the issues rather than resolve them. He ended up neither accepted nor appreciated for artificially reducing the living burden on the people.

Asking people to bear higher prices is one thing, if they can be persuaded that there is no alternative, but it is an impossible task if people believe that while they strain under rising costs, state resources are being squandered without oversight, or a few continue to enrich themselves dishonestly.

The new government’s predicament is not going to be different. It has to either act firmly, and correctly, in putting the economic house in order, and hence be prepared to meet serious popular discontent, or opt to avoid disappointing the high expectations of the people by conceding unaffordable promises and offers.

Admittedly, both roads are difficult to take. At this critical time in the country’s history, no prime minister, no matter how able and talented, can introduce rigorous corrective measures that may add to the hardship.

People need to regain their lost confidence in government first if they are to be willing to offer voluntary sacrifices for the general good, and that is why the three corners of the triangle need to be connected.

In tandem with stringent economic measures there should be immediate action to implement political reform that guarantees improved democratic practices, such as enhancing people’s power through a representative and freely elected parliament, free press, independent judiciary, accountability and proper application of the law.

The time needed for the accomplishment of such radical political reform may still be too long for economic measures urgently needed to arrest the speedy deterioration.

The temptation before the new prime minister to tread the road of popularity must be obvious. It is very unlikely that he will be readily willing to shock the people with measures that would make their lives more difficult. Neither would it be acceptable to maintain things at their current, “Bakhit government level”, which was widely rejected.

Most people expect much better and much faster improvements to view the new government as better than its predecessor, or it will quickly face the same negative sentiment. The main condition for the new prime minister’s success is Jordanians’ positive reaction to his performance, and that will be at the expense of the economy.

Since his designation just a week ago, Khasawneh has only been receiving demands from parties, groups, parliamentarians, columnists, organisations and individuals. He will not be able to cope with them, irrespective of their justifiability, particularly those relating to higher salaries and improved incomes.

It is quite difficult therefore to expect this Cabinet change to be any different from what we have been recently experiencing.

Real change should have been premised on the formulation of a new strategy by a national convention of all the different political components of the society.

They should analyse the crisis and agree on a comprehensive corrective programme to be put before a consensus personality at the head of a consensus team to implement. The chances of people’s acceptance of crisis measures are much better when they reflect a national consensus than when they are an individual initiative.

My fear is that we soon will enter the failed cycle of the previous governments: confused performance, rising popular disappointment, calls for change, patchwork reshuffle and finally a new Cabinet. In the meantime, the country would be sinking deeper into crisis.

Hasan Abu Nimah is a former Jordanian envoy to Italy, Portugal, Belgium, Holland and Luxembourg. This article was first published in The Jordan Times on Oct. 26, 2011

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