June 11, 2012

In light of the quest to enhance the climate of democracy and political openness, attention comes to the conditions of municipalities, which are an essential component of local government in Jordan. Since the beginning of the merger and appointment experience in municipalities in Jordan, this issue has been viewed from two perspectives: the first supports the centralized approach and tightening the grip of the center, and the second reinforces the pattern of expanding local participation in decision-making and assuming responsibilities. This discrepancy results from the absence of a clear vision for the role of local government institutions within a comprehensive national perspective. However, both views were aimed at improving performance and getting municipalities out of their crisis.   

In the case of Jordan, there is almost unanimity that the municipalities were going through a crisis before the start of the merger and appointment project in (2001), which justified, to a large extent, the initiation of that process aimed at reforming the municipal financial situation and strengthening the foundations of local governance.

The financial and administrative aspect of the transformation project overshadowed the political and social dimensions, as the restructuring strategy included legislative and financial axes, and was devoid of any social or political implications that illustrate the interest of those in charge of the project in those aspects.   

This report deals with the roots and factors of the municipal crisis that has worsened under the watchful eye of successive governments that were and still control spending items and take important decisions. This was accompanied by a pattern of permissiveness and appeasement on the part of the center in its relationship with the municipalities. This eventually led to a financial crisis in which the municipalities were no longer able to continue their business.

By monitoring the relationship between the ministry and the municipalities, it became clear the absence of the central government’s strategic vision on local governance. Municipalities were not seen as a cornerstone in the institutionalization of participation in decision-making and the promotion of democracy. Rather, they were considered, in most cases, as service units unrelated to the contents of political participation. This general trend explains the partial transformation of municipalities into centers for social assistance, and not sites for providing services on the basis of productive efficiency, which led to the accumulation of indebtedness, inflation of the functional apparatus, and the allocation of more than (50%) of municipal revenues to wages and salaries.

The role that can be played by municipalities has also been reduced beyond what is stipulated in their law, so the center now provides many services to citizens directly, which weakened the relationship between the municipality and its citizens, and established a direct relationship between the center and citizens. This policy led to the loss of local initiative and the weakening of the municipality’s ability to impose levies or local taxes, so that the municipality becomes directly responsible to its citizens.

In response to this situation, the Ministry of Municipal Affairs initiated a merger and appointment project to deal with the repercussions of a snowball crisis. The project was not completely opposed, but criticism was directed at the project in the appointment aspect of it, as many recognized the necessity of merging to advance the level of municipal work. In the practical application of the project, the lack of clarity of standards did not lead to the drawing of a new strategy and vision for local governance that addresses the roots of the previous crisis. On the contrary, the project took the character of “urgency and interim” rather than “strategy.”

A “strategy” has been formulated to deal with the new situation and new organizational structures have been put in place. However, the commitment to bear the burden of indebtedness, bequeathing the staff to the new municipalities, and the absence of a work schedule weakened the practical and application aspect of this strategy, which seems almost integrated in theory.

On the financial and administrative level, there has been some improvement in the performance of municipalities in terms of collection rates, institutional capacities and financial planning. However, the relationship that prevailed before between the center and the parties remained the same, as the center still controls the details of the work of the municipalities without a real delegation of powers, so that the parties become responsible for the decisions they take, and this would perpetuate the previous patterns of relations.

On the political level, the turnout in the local elections after the merger and appointment witnessed a noticeable decline, which contradicts the national trend to enhance political participation, as the data provided by the report indicates that the rate of registration and voting in the last elections was much lower than it was in previous elections. The reason may be that, in some aspects, the merger did not take into account the issue of realistic representation of the population. It may also be said that the appointment of the mayor and a number of its council members, in accordance with the new law, has led to a lack of enthusiasm among citizens to take an interest in municipal work affairs, in general. This may be due to the local imbalances that were of interest to citizens, and their growing sense of the futility of efforts to influence the reality of the municipalities, in light of the awareness of the center’s ability to continuously intervene and impose its decisions and directions.

In its final part, the report concluded with a set of recommendations that stressed the need for the current stage of the work of municipalities to be part of a long-term strategy that takes into account the elements of local governance in all its political, social and economic dimensions, and to solve the problem of duplication, between the governor appointed by the Ministry of the Interior and the head of The “elected” municipality and the Ministry of Municipal Affairs, in the powers that govern the mechanisms of local government. Emphasizing that the restructuring process will not be complete without returning to the elections, and finding controls and standards to ensure oversight over municipalities, and holding them responsible for the decisions they take.