Jordanian Decentralization: What a Policy Process Can Teach Us about Authoritarian Politics

E.J. Karmel discusses the benefits of studying policy making in authoritarian regimes.

The Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan passed legislation in 2015 to launch a process of decentralization. In the wake of the law’s ratification, a number of thoughtful pieces were published exploring the rationale for the reform. Given the shallowness of the proposed decentralization process, some authors argued that it constituted little more than a tactic of authoritarian upgrading that was employed to protect the long-standing system of clientelism. Others noted that the process was actually designed to further centralize power, thereby reinforcing the regime’s support base. Each of the contributions provided important insights into the political dynamics motivating decentralization and its ultimate design, but they left the policy process leading to decentralization unexplored.

Policy-making processes have been bypassed in the analysis of decentralization because of an underlying assumption that legislation in Jordan is dictated by the country’s political dynamics. By extension, the analysis of political dynamics in Jordan – and clientelism, in particular – has been treated as sufficient not only for explaining why decentralization was chosen, but also what form of decentralization was pursued. This assumption is reflected in the wider literature on Middle East politics, and on authoritarian regimes more broadly. Policy processes in these contexts are frequently assumed away, treated as irrelevant because policies are understood to be the product of regime or selectorate preferences.

This depiction of policy making corresponded poorly with observations I made during the design of Jordan’s decentralization in 2014 and 2015. At the time, I was working first with a Jordanian organization that was highly involved in decentralization and later with an international NGO that was coordinating advocacy efforts around decentralization. These organizations were not invited to the drafting table, but they were provided with a front-row seat to the proceedings. From this vantage point, we observed a process that was neither monopolized by the regime nor dictated by cohesive elite interests.

Instead, the drafting of the decentralization legislation was complicated and protracted. The King set the agenda with his vision for decentralization, but the subsequent process involved a myriad of actors with different interests, each competing to frame their policy preferences as being in line with the royal vision. This policy debate proceeded through numerous institutional arenas, with actors navigating a fluid landscape of formal and informal rules. As the drafting passed through these arenas, the capital of the policy actors fluctuated, dynamically reflecting their personal and institutional backgrounds, their connections in that arena, and their abilities to forge together coalitions to outmaneuver competitors.

Since the legislation passed, I have interviewed more than 100 policy makers involved in the drafting of Jordan’s decentralization legislation, distilling many of their insights into my recent article in MELG. The article delves into how the policy process influenced the decentralization reforms, but the research also highlighted the benefits of taking authoritarian policy making more seriously. I would like to mention four of these benefits here.

Firstly, and most intuitively, if the object of study is a policy, understanding the dynamics of its design contributes to an improved understanding of not only the policy, but also how it will be implemented. For instance, the executive drafters of Jordan’s decentralization legislation were willing to introduce elected councils at the governorate level but were opposed to providing these councils with legal personality. They did not want to provide the untested councils with the ability to form independent relationships, particularly with foreign entities. But, despite significant pressure from these executive institutions, the parliament went rogue, amending the draft to include legal personality. The parliamentarians also ensured this change would not be overturned, by framing the debate as a constitutional issue and winning the support of the King. However, because the same institutions that opposed the inclusion of legal personality were subsequently tasked with putting the legislation into practice, the potential of the amendment – and the overall authority of the councils – was intentionally limited.

Secondly, conflicts that emerge during policy processes provide insight into future reforms, particularly if inter-institutional power dynamics change. In the case of decentralization, the 2015 legislation is currently being revised. Unsurprisingly, the draft suggests stripping the governorate councils of legal personality and introducing a set of tools to ensure maverick actions are punished. A number of significant changes have also been introduced because the executive penholder has changed. Whereas the Ministry of Interior held the decentralization file in 2015, the Ministry of Local Administration is leading the new draft. From its newfound position of strength, the Ministry of Local Administration has included a number of amendments that the Ministry of Interior vetoed last time around, such as closer integration between municipal and governorate councils.

Thirdly, examining the interactions between actors involved in policy processes helps refine our understanding of political dynamics in authoritarian contexts. Jordan’s parliament is often described as a façade institution that diverts attention away from the actual loci of decision making. The real centers of decision making are, in turn, treated as black boxes: opaque, amorphous institutions that spawn ready-made policies. However, greater specification of dynamics within these institutions can be achieved by tracing policy processes. In this way, the MELG article shows that the parliament is able to exert considerable influence on certain policies – and has even secured important changes to contentious bills. Likewise, even though it may be difficult to shine light on the black boxes, the article demonstrates that the forces in these boxes are far from monolithic. And, the more we explore the divisions playing out in their darkness, the better we will understand the increasingly visible instability in Jordan.

Lastly, an increased appreciation of authoritarian policy making may encourage a reconsideration of regime classifications. Jordan is often defined as a linchpin monarchy, with the King cast as an arm’s-length arbitrator. This depiction is accurate for some policies, but, if the King is particularly vested in an issue, he plays a far more proactive role. As such, if policy processes are taken into account, some regime classifications would need to be reexamined. We would also find that the current categorizations lump together regimes that make decisions in different ways. Jordan is often compared to Morocco (the other archetypal linchpin in the Arab world), but policy processes in Morocco differ vastly from those of Jordan, especially because of the French colonial influence on the Moroccan bureaucracy. Difficulties consequently emerge when drawing comparisons between how the two kingdoms make and execute policy.

If politics, as Harold Lasswell suggests, is truly about “who gets what,” then policy making should be central to the study of politics in all systems, even authoritarian ones.

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E.J. Karmel is a PhD candidate in political science at the University of Guelph, Canada.

Find E.J. on Twitter: @ej_karmel