The politics of contracting a social contract

By Fares Braizat - July 14, 2018

A social contract is meant to address channels of governance between the governed and the governing. In any polity, the constitution is “the” ultimate social contract that can be supplemented by “a” sub-social contract or a series of them. Government, parliament and judiciary are the mechanisms through which governing-governed or state-society relations are managed. Such relations, manifested through the social contract, entail certain calibre of performance expectation. Given the growing levels of dissatisfaction with the performance of these branches and an increasingly dangerous confidence gap between these branches of governance and citizens, serious action is long overdue. To start late is better than never.

State-society relations before 1989 differ significantly of what has evolved since then. Significant changes have taken place in state-society relations. Changes such as higher inflation, weaker purchasing power and implementation of market rules, where free market conditions are not ripe, led to monopolies and lack of competition, inefficient public sector and partly mismanaged privatisation process, which resulted in weaker governance. The latter surfaced in state’s inability to respond to priorities of Jordanians, which have not changed much since the mid-nineties: Unemployment, poverty, prices and fighting corruption. These priorities are functional reflections of weaker education output, lack of proper public accountability and misappropriation of public funds. On these public policy areas, successive governments proved largely inconsequential.

The outcome was the unintentional creation of a permanent marginalised underclass outside urban centres, which suffers from higher levels of financial debt than urban centres and unequal development in services and infrastructure, rendering it largely uncompetitive in urban settings where opportunities exist. The result is socio-political alienation and a quantitatively qualified sense of disenfranchisement. Evidently, over 60 per cent said they will absolutely not vote if elections are to be held these days, double the figure of previous years, as a recent survey conducted by NAMA Strategic Intelligence Solutions demonstrates. Increasing political disengagement correlates positively with the highest levels of disapproval ratings of Parliament’s performance ever recorded. These are indicative of weaker faith in the existing constitutional channels of communications through which citizens place their demands on the political system. Consequently, leading to self-chosen, as well as systematic socio-political marginalisation.  

Marginalisation has not been acknowledged enough. For the second time since the advance of the Arab Spring, a government acknowledges “marginalisation” in its discourse, when Prime Minister Omar Razzaz referred to “developing marginalised areas”, as part of the new social contract, in his speech to Parliament. The first was in 2012, when then prime minister Awn Khasawneh presented his government’s programme to Parliament. He said “some of our problems are results of feelings of marginalisation and exclusion, while some of them are attributed to a conviction of absence of justice and equality”.

Disentangling the complexity of marginalisation and concentration of economic and political power resources must be put at play now for “the” or “a new” social contract to be meaningful. His Majesty King Abdullah and Razzaz acknowledged and communicated publically that business as usual is no longer an option. Spelling it out a bit more: Incompetence of economic policy planners and makers, indifference to public affairs, denial, arrogance, falsification, abuse of strategic communications, spin doctors’ beautification of ugly economic reality and lack of accountability culminated in May 30th unconventional protest action.

At upper echelons of power, there seems to be different, yet complementary, understandings of “social contract”. In his letter of designation to the PM, His Majesty stated that“… the government must undertake a comprehensive review of the tax system and tax burden, with a view to limiting indirect and regressive consumption taxes that do not differentiate between the rich and the poor; and with the aim of delineating the relationship between citizens and the state through a clear social contract that identifies rights and dutiesî. The King is clearly emphasising redistribution of tax burden. Progressive tax, though enshrined in the constitution article 111, is being resisted on many grounds. One of them is the presence of an alternative and fair proportional flat rate of income, which in effect and despite competing interpretations, is a progressive tax as contribution increases linearly with income.

Referring to the social contract, the PM in his response to the designation letter stated that “… the government will work on deepening state-society relations through participatory approach based on “the social contract” that enhances rights and duties”. This statement came under the PM’s elaborative plan for political reform, which included amending legislations of political relevance and evaluating the decentralisation experiment. Here, the PM has taken a political angel to “the social contract” under the banner of political reform. As important as political reform is for the short and the long terms, the immediate importance ought to be addressing the tall order of real and perceived socio-economic marginalisation. Since it is a tall order, some serious action on corruption cases that the PM is very familiar with through his work on the privatisation evaluation report is logically in order.

The most recent update on the discourse of social contract was in the PMís introduction of government manifesto to Parliament, he mentioned ìsocial contractî four times out of 3,708 word-long speech. He referred to a constitution-dependent ìnewî social contract with clearly defined ìrights and responsibilitiesî, ìcitizen-government relationsî, and ìcitizensí role in sustainable developmentî. According to the PM, the ìnewî social contract is ìtheî vehicle towards ìnational renaissance. The latter would include, inter alia, citizenship-based rights and duties, government partnership with Parliament, civil society and private sector to deliver education and training that would help the youth to be ìproductive citizensî and provide health services, public transportation and ìdeveloping marginalised areasî. Here, the PM talks about a sub-constitutional formula to do with government plans to engineer ìnational renaissanceî. 

Despite apparent differences and prioritisation, in effect, the outcome would be similar since government spending is continuing, while services are deteriorating. Economic reform goes hand in hand with political reform, conventional wisdom has it. It is not expected that the government would introduce dramatic changes neither in the political nor the economic structures of state and society. However, it can make a huge impact with little things that make a big difference by improving the efficiency and quality of public service delivery. Tax payers would like to see their tax money turning streets into cleaner spaces not filled with littler and government SUVs roaming day and night aimlessly. They would also require schools prioritising reliable quality education over quantity, health centres becoming healthy professional places, transportation evolving into a useable system, civil service becoming in fact a “service” not a costly burden and proper public policy planning reducing the cost of production (cost of energy and bureaucracy) to create “productive citizens”. These are the basic pillars of “a” or “the new” social contract whether under political or economic banners.

The politics of contracting a social contract

When the country’s official unemployment rate is 19 per cent, and much higher among the educated youth, with nearly half of them planning on leaving the country, it becomes really hard for any well-balanced person with a little bit of touch with reality and people’s economic marginalisation to understand or accept from a national interest perspective why an enormous national economic treasure, such as the baptism site, is not utilised enough to realise its enormous economic potential. It must be important to a great number of the 2.5 billion Christians living in the world!

Investing in the baptism site will turn it into a bee-nest of employment opportunities for our emigrating youth. It serves the national interest of the country by reducing the sense of economic marginalisation, which will in turn lessen political socio-frustration stemming from a loss of faith in the government’s ability to enable the economy to create jobs for the ever-increasing hundreds of thousands of unemployed Jordanian youth. Polling data gathered by NAMA Strategic Intelligence Solutions clearly demonstrates a less-than-satisfactory evaluation of public policies on unemployment, poverty, cleanliness, education and health.

When these issues are combined with a significant increase in the percentage of Jordanian households reporting that their household income is “insufficient and does not meet their needs” from nearly 40 per cent in 2011 to two-thirds in 2019, one cannot possibly ignore these indicators and brush them under the carpet in a blatant state of denial. Responsible people will definitely make the link between these realties and developing the baptism site to help solve them.

Therefore, an expeditious action to turn the baptism site from its unsatisfying and economically semi-idle current state to an economically vibrant Christian pilgrimage site is in order. Along with its sister sites — Mukawer, Nebo, Mar Elias, Um Al Jmal, Um Al Rasas and Jesus cave — it will generate wealth and contribute to the reduction of the many socio-economic and socio-political ills. These ills have been accumulating over the years due to a weak sense of responsibility and the accountability of public policymakers. The time has come to utilise the untapped potential that awaits reasonability and a sense of responsibility towards unemployed and impoverished fellow Jordanians.

When comparing to the western side of the River Jordan, which received nearly three quarters of a million visitors in 2018, the Jordanian site, which is recognised by the Vatican and Christian denominations, received only 143,011 in 2018. It becomes even harder to understand logically and sanely why the baptism site is not on a par with the other side, which is not officially recognised by Christian churches as the baptism site.

Is it not embarrassing to all those in charge of public policy that nearly over a third of our adult people are considering emigrating, a figure that has doubled since 2011? And that half of our youth are willing to leave the country after we invested in their education in search for jobs and better economic opportunities while we have, inter alia, the treasure of the baptism site?

All this comes in a direly alarming context of a perceived increasing sense of injustice and inequality in the country. In 1999, only 8 per cent of adult Jordanians reported that “justice does not exist at all in Jordan”, and thanks to the appalling inadequacy of public policymakers, it reached 23 per cent in 2018. Similarly, the percentage of those who believe that “equality does not exist at all in Jordan” increased from 13 per cent to 30 per cent over the same period.

These alarm bells should make policymakers more conscious of public interest and less focused on personal narrow interests. Denial and business as usual is not an option in these unusual times. Jordans’ dignity is an extension of Jordanians’ dignity.

October 26, 2019 - Fares Braizat

Teachers have produced a compelling “justice narrative” to frame their strike campaign. At the level of the Jordan Teachers Association (JTA), the adherence of teachers to the strike and its message reflects an extremely disciplined, well-organised and committed body of JTA members. At the national level, it is this narrative that makes nearly three quarters of those who support the strike attribute their support to “teachers’ difficult economic conditions”, according to a two-wave nationally representative tracking poll of 2,516 adult Jordanians published last week by NAMA Strategic Intelligence Solutions that covered the strike between September 9 and 19. 

Since the early 1990s, the conventional social contract has been changing and inequalities have been increasing despite the growth of the nation’s GDP to the highest levels since the inception of the Kingdom. These inequalities are practically symbolised by the teachers’ strike today. 

In 1999, when Jordanians were asked in polls about the extent to which justice exists in Jordan on a four-point scale (to a great extent, to a medium extent, to a little extent, or justice does not exist at all), 8 per cent said “justice doesn’t exist at all in Jordan”. This increased to 23 per cent in 2018. Over the same period of time the percentage of people saying “justice exists to a great extent in Jordan” has decreased from 30 per cent to 10 per cent. This may partially explain why 41 per cent of Jordanians support the strike despite its “impact on students and their families”. The latter is the most important reason for those who oppose the strike, as 60 per cent of them cited this reason.

Changes in support and opposition to the teachers’ pay raise and strike, don’t change the fact that socio-economic inequalities are increasing, especially when comparing governorates. Although 56 per cent, on average, oppose the strike. The poll shows that opposition has increased from 55 per cent on September 9, to 69 per cent on Thursday, September 19 while support has decreased from 42 per cent to 29 per cent over the same period. 

Support for the teachers’ pay raise and the strike is highest in the poor south which is made up of the governorates of Karak, Tafileh, Maan and Aqaba. As a region, the south has been showing all signs of distress over the past three decades. Similar signs are present in Madaba which is counted as part of the centre (Amman, Zarqa and Balqa) although its indicators are close to or worse than the south. The latest such indicator is Department of Statistics data from Madaba registering the highest unemployment rate among Jordan’s governorates. 

According to a recent report by the UNDP, “The overall inequality measure remains little affected by the urban/rural divide, but differences between governorates account for 8 per cent of total inequality. Income inequality is higher when measured with income than with consumption. Furthermore, social transfers buffer income inequality by bringing down income inequality measures by four percentage points.”   

This mix of data may either upset or please the JTA and GoJ. But it shows that there is a societal split in Jordan over the issue, as 60 per cent support teachers’ pay raise, but as the strike goes on, GoJ loses more credibility and teachers lose more support. Ultimately, we are all losing because our public policies have not been “good enough” to address our growing socio-economic injustices and inequalities which are gradually depleting state credibility as over two decades of accumulative polling data on evaluation of government performance clearly demonstrates.

Fares Braizat - September 28, 2019

The current system of political parties’ funding ensured, by design, a very low level of incentivised political competition among political parties. It was premeditated to “offer”, rather than “reward”, parties financial aid on an “egalitarian basis” in a similar way to social welfare support. The system is egalitarian in the sense that each party is eligible for an equal sum of money by virtue of being legally registered. Hence it is legitimate to name it “political social welfare”.

The system, which has been in operation since 2013 and amended in 2016, proved to be ineffective in promoting multi-party competitive politics, building parties’ capacity, encouraging citizens to engage in parties and to increase party-driven political participation.

While the official political discourse has grown rich on the necessity for more effective political participation, parties were cruising on autopilot, fuelled by fixed equal public funding for each party.

In an attempt to change the current reality, the new draft of parties’ funding regulations presents a good opportunity to create a more competitive political environment by rewarding measurable parties’ achievements as opposed to the existing one-size-fits-all funding scheme currently in operation.

Recent polling by NAMA Strategic Intelligence Solutions on the performance of political parties suggests that an overwhelming majority of Jordanians believes political parties are ineffective. Even name recognition of parties is at very low levels. Their electability is even worse. It is expected that the newly drafted regulations of political parties’ funding are going to be rewarding in terms of parties’ effectiveness, increasing political participation, parliamentary efficacy, democratisation and democracy solidification. The proposed changes are steps in the right direction in terms of rewarding political competition and expanding youth and women involvement in a multi-party polity.

The new draft regulations present a good opportunity for all political actors in the political process, including political parties and government, to move democratisation forward towards parliamentary government. In line with good international practice of political parties funding, these regulations give parties a chance to demonstrate their seriousness and to do away with the previous system of “political social welfare”.



Fares Braizat - July 28, 2019

The main goal of political reform is to achieve a parliamentary government. Practically it means the leader of the largest parliamentary bloc should form the government. In light of not having achieved this goal since 1989, the logical question is why has a democratic reform that entails a parliamentary government not occurred since then? And what are the consequences for state-society? Since 2000, the topic of parliamentary government has appeared over a dozen times in His Majesty’s vision and has been more explicitly spelled out since 2012 in the King’s Discussion Papers. The ultimate goal of political reform is achieving a parliamentary government based on political parties who compete in general, periodic, free and fair elections. This leads to the rotation of power through the ballot box. 

Generally, Jordanian public opinion is positive towards democracy. However, the culture of political democracy  needs to be rooted through institutional mechanisms and behaviour. A recent representative study of Jordan’s population that surveyed 3,020 respondents, conducted by NAMA Strategic Intelligence Solutions, found that 84 per cent of Jordanians believe that it is important (64 per cent very important, 20 per cent important) for them to live in a country that is governed democratically. Jordanians assess the level of democracy in Jordan to be 5.62 out of 10, while they asses the level of democracy in Turkey and the US at about 7.5 out of 10. Jordanians assess the democratic development in Jordan with mixed views: 12 per cent believe that democracy in Jordan is developing rapidly, 52 per cent believe that it is developing slowly, 19 per cent believe that it is stagnant and 16 per cent believe that it is regressing. 

In light of the aforementioned, three-quarters of Jordanians believe that Jordan is governed in the interest of a few and a quarter believe that it is governed in the interest of the majority of people. Only 22 per cent of those whose age ranges between 25 and 34 believe that the country is governed in the interest of the majority. This percentage is the lowest among all age groups. Whereas 77 per cent of that age range believe that the country is governed in the interest of a few, the highest among all age groups. The situation differs slightly percentage-wise for the age group of 65+, where 37 per cent of them believe that it is governed in the interest of the majority, compared with 60 per cent believing that it is governed in the interest of a few. 

The percentage of those who believe that Jordan is governed in the interest of a few increases with the increase in the level of education. Citizens living in governorates are the least believing that Jordan is governed in the interest of the majority. The governorates of Maan, Karak, Tafileh, Madaba, Ajloun, Irbid and Balqa’s average was lower than the national average (27 per cent). Amman, Zarqa, Aqaba, Mafraq and Jerash on the other hand are above the national average.

In light of this empirical evidence, the state started various constructive initiatives addressing governance dynamics, but that is not enough to achieve the vision laid out repeatedly by the King. The work by the Ministry of Political and Parliamentary Affairs on reforming political parties’ funding system is a step in the right direction. 

Fares Braizat - July 23, 2019

Back in February 2011, nearly three-quarters of adult Jordanians and 80 per cent of the elites’ sample supported protests that were taking place in the Arab world demanding political and economic reforms. At the same time, support for the protests in Jordan was around 47 per cent among the public, and 63 per cent among the elites’ sample. Reported participation rates were 7 per cent among the public, and 21 per cent among the elites’ sample. Obviously, the social desirability effect was evident, as people were associating with a very positive atmosphere in early to mid-February 2011, when this poll was carried out by the Centre for Strategic Studies (CSS).

Support percentages, as well as reported participation rates in protest activities, dropped significantly after the Arab Spring turned bloody in Tunisia, Syria, Libya and Yemen. Lower levels of support for, and participation in, protests throughout 2011 and 2012 were also a function of state responsiveness. The state started a process of national dialogue, engaging relevant political forces, whether organised, such as Islamic Action Front Party, or loosely organised Hirak activists. This process led to constitutional and structural changes that moved the country forward in a peaceful manner.

Since 2011 and until now, many factors have changed locally and regionally. Internal weak economic performance, coupled with regional realignments and global competition in and over the region, produced a complex web of intersections that Jordan must deal with proactively. One of these complex issues is managing state-society relations under economic stress and government inapt polices. While the government is not producing satisfactory results for the public — the lowest performing ministerial team since 1996, according to CSS and NAMA polls — the public is becoming increasingly edgy. Recent polls show that support for protest action has grown from around 15 per cent in 2012 to 63 per cent in April 2019.

The question is whether this change of attitudes is going to mean more protest action in the streets. Judging by previous attitudinal and behavioural data trends, it is unlikely to see mass protests across the country, despite the growth of dissatisfaction with government performance. However, the current pockets of protesters will remain active, and it does not necessarily mean significant sustainable growth for a few rational reasons:

First, there are 1.3 million subscribers to the Social Security Fund. This affects the lives of 6 million Jordanians who have direct interest in preserving the “certainty they know” over the “uncertainty they do not know” despite the fact that a majority of them are not satisfied with government performance.

Second, Jordanians trust the military and security institutions. This trust extends to a deeply-held belief that these institutions will keep the interests of Jordanians at heart despite sluggish civil institutions performance.

Third, the perceived and actual costs of protest action are relatively high compared with the benefits that participants may expect as a result of their action. In addition to monetary cost, there are social and political costs associated with the participation in and promotion of unconventional political action that discourage people.

Fourth, preserving stability is very important to the overwhelming majority of Jordanians. Even peaceful protest discourages people from coming to Jordan and those in the country from going around the Kingdom; it exerts pressure on tourism, transportation and incoming patients and students. Tourists’ numbers show how inconsequential protests have been.

Fares Braizat - May 20, 2019