As is the case in most Arab countries, the political discourse in Jordan has become very lively over the past year and a half. Politicians and decision makers – both present and previous ones – have been energetically presenting their views about the current state of political life in the country, and to where it should be heading. In spite of the wide variety of views they may express, almost all seem to view politics as a centralized activity that takes place on the national level. The empowerment of local government, primarily expressed through municipal government, is generally absent from their thinking.
One notable exception is provided by Walid al-Masri, the former mayor of Irbid. He has strongly advocated empowering municipal authorities in a real and meaningful manner. He emphasizes that the authority of municipalities should extend beyond issuing permits, paving streets, and collecting garbage, to an active involvement in matters such as public health, education, and mass transportation. This means that the ability of municipalities to collect taxes and to develop and implement bylaws should be expanded and strengthened.
As authority is increasingly decentralized and transferred from national bodies to municipal ones, people will be able to have more influence over many of the issues that directly, continuously, and intimately affect their lives. Also, decentralization will relieve national politics of considerable pressures, and will make them less divisive and conflict-ridden. It will allow many issues to be addressed and resolved on the local level rather than pushing them to the already overcrowded and overstressed arena of national politics.
It is at the municipal level that the practice of participatory democracy truly begins and much of its takes place. Here, people can come together – both as individuals and groups – to address and influence a wide range of issues affecting their daily lives. On a most basic level, these include how their buildings may be constructed and used, how traffic moves through their streets, and where cars may park. They also include how their garbage is collected and managed, how their water and electricity services are delivered, and how their sewage is disposed of and treated. They also should comprise how their children are educated, their public health clinics are run, and their public transportation is organized.
Many of the decisions affecting our daily lives should be taken on the local rather than national level. Municipal institutions are able to accumulate more immediate and intimate knowledge of the needs, concerns, and aspirations of a city’s residents in comparison to national centralized institutions. Moreover, municipal government functions at a smaller scale than national government, and this allows people to more readily become involved in them and in a manner that may not be easily realizable in national politics. It is easier at that level to engage in the various components of political activism, whether organizing, making alliances, lobbying, fundraising, or negotiating. Through this, people get to take control of their affairs as city residents, rather than feeling helpless, powerless, marginalized, and alienated in relation to the decision-making processes affecting their lives.
If increasing authority is given to elected municipal structures in Jordan, both municipal institutions and city residents will need to undergo a steep learning curve. This is especially true considering that both have had so little influence over urban affairs for such long periods of time. Errors will be made. Resources will not be always be used in a most efficient manner. Voters initially may not vote for those best qualified to represent them as mayors and city councilors. The all too familiar mayor whose legacy usually ends up consisting of buying a new mayor’s car, redecorating his office, and hiring his relatives, while leaving no positive impact on the city, will not disappear overnight. However, lessons will be learned quickly. Voters will come to appreciate the responsibility they take on when they vote. Municipal officials will quickly realize that they need to deliver tangible improvements to city residents if they are to stay in office beyond the current elections cycle. Also, municipalities will learn from each other, and they will compete with each other. In relatively little time, best practices will begin to emerge and spread.
For all this to happen, however, municipalities need to be given real authority, and the people of the city need to be able to fully decide through the voting process who takes on positions of municipal authority. Here, I am reminded of an opinion that Walid al-Masri has put forward: If the authority given to municipalities is limited to matters such as issuing permits, people will vote for those who will make it easier for them to obtain those permits. This even applies if the permitting process results in decisions that are clearly against the public good, as with allowing people to build larger buildings than they should, or permitting functions to take hold in locations where they shouldn’t be (a wedding hall in the middle of a residential area, which generates horrific levels of noise, traffic, and garbage, is one of many such examples). Voters under such circumstances will elect those with whom they have strong blood ties or social ties. However, if municipalities also have authority over issues such as education, public transportation, and public health, voters will begin to think differently. Rather than automatically electing those with whom they have close personal ties, they will start thinking about electing those who are able to deliver better education to their children, better health facilities to their families, and better public transportation to commuters. With that, the democratic process begins to enter a more mature phase.
Although the subject of decentralization is often mentioned in Jordan, it is not usually given more than lip service. While there is much talk about the political reforms that need to be made in the country, and while divergent and often conflicting opinions are being put forward as to what defines reform, these differing opinions seem to come together in viewing politics as a centralized activity. If meaningful reform is to be achieved, it has to include serious efforts at decentralization. Decentralization, in turn, cannot be achieved without empowering municipalities.
August 15, 2012