Democratization in Jordan: an idealized dream or a feasible reality?

[14-05-2015 12:36 AM]

AMMONNEWS - By Mohammed Abu Dalhoum - There is a lot of political literature written about the various kinds of political transitions. Smith in his book Understanding Third World Politics talks about the consequences of political transitions in the developing countries mentioning instability as one of them. He seems to be rejecting the doctrine that liberal democracy and stability needs money to thrive. An example is Nigeria, a relatively rich country, has not been able to maintain its democratic regimes for more than 5 years at a time.

Jordan is a middle-income country that is seeking democratization in the form of a parliamentary government. In his book Essentials of Comparative Politics, Patrick O’Neil defines liberal democracy as a political system that promotes “participation, competition and liberty.” When observing the current parliament, one sees many problems such as underrepresentation. Why do these problems exist even after what was referred to as “a truly fair and transparent elections”? In this paper I explore the reasons behind these conditions. I examine what has been done on ground in terms of democratization in Jordan in recent years with a deep focus on King Abdullah’s five discussion papers. What do they suggest in order to reform the political system? Are those suggestions viable or are they just a mere idealization?

In 2010 a young man by the name of Mohamed Bouazizi burned himself to death in Tunisia protesting the way the police treated him. Many young Tunisians followed him and started protesting against the government. This has ignited the so-called Arab Spring movements. On January 14th the Tunisian president Zine el Abidine Ben Ali steps down . While this uprising was roughly successful, fellow rebellions in Egypt, Libya, Syria and many more took a violent tern. Journalists are indifferent about the meaning of “Spring” in the Arab Spring. Some said it obviously referred to the season while others referred to the object. The later makes more sense as these movements feed onto oppression. A pressured spring generates more impulse when it is released.

Jordan had its own share of the fiasco. The demonstrators had multiple demands. Liberals, conservatives, Islamists, and leftists all turned to the king as the reformer.

At least 15,000 marched to the streets and chanted, "Listen Abdullah, our demands are legitimate" and "People want to reform the regime”. In a country consisting of Jordanians, Palestinians, Circassians, Chechnyans, and Kurds, the king is viewed as a unifying figure and holds traditional and religious legitimacy being a direct descendent of the prophet Muhammad. Nonetheless, polarizing movements in the neighboring countries provoked the people and resulted in one of the most serious challenges the king’s authority has ever faced to reform the system.

What were the people’s needs? The economy was not so great to begin with. The prices were increasing while salaries were stagnant. There were demands that the parliament reforms itself starting with a new electoral law. Sheikh Hamam the leader of the Muslim Brotherhood party- the king’s biggest opposition group, stated that they were demanding “real reforms and not illusory reforms and finding an election law that is different from this one. This one is rejected.”

Another electoral law was passed. It featured a mixed voting system for the first time in Jordan. 150 seats were to be divided into 123 for single member district votes and 27 for parties/ blocs competing under nationwide proportional representation. Elections were set to take place in January of 2013. Meanwhile, king Abdullah decided to take a different approach in educating Jordanians about political reform. He published five discussion papers written in both Arabic and English. “The aim of these papers is to facilitate a national conversation around our reform roadmap and democratic transformation to build consensus, encourage citizens’ participation in decision-making, and sustain the constructive momentum for reform.”

The first discussion paper was titled “Our Journey to Forge Our Path Towards Democracy” . King Abdullah uses this paper to share the necessary principles needed to bring about democratization. This paper was published on December 29th 2012, and it explored the pre-elections necessities. Generally the Jordanian voter does not think at the ballot; they vote for a tribe member, a person they know, or a person who bribed them. However the voter has the responsibility, the right, and the national duty to hold the candidates accountable and to keep them engaged in “discussions on key issues related to the economy, the country’s reform course and your vision for the future.”

The candidates are generally only engaged for the duration of elections. The king notices this problem and urges the people to engage amongst each other in political discussions. This is one step further into building a political culture. However in a country where this is slightly uncommon, the king believes that there should be some guiding principles to facilitate the discussion. While these principles might be taken for granted in developed countries, they are still to be engraved in the Jordanian society.

The first principle is “respect for all fellow citizens”. This is the foundation of free speech.

The Jordanian press experience so little freedom. Editors in chief do not respect writers’ opinions.

Different opinions are exactly what a country needs while maintaining the peacefulness of discussions.

The second principle is “citizenship and accountability go hand in hand”. This is one step towards good citizenship.

He outlines a few ways in which a citizen can be active. First he urges the citizens to vote in the elections while highlighting that democracy does not stop after voting, instead, “it is an on-going process; it is about holding our elected officials to their commitments.” These candidates come with their shiny slogans, and then they get away with doing nothing once they get the seat. It is the citizen’s role to ask these candidates to provide feasible plans to what they plan to do about what we the citizens bring to their attention. “Candidates must propose practical, objective and fact-based programs that provide implementable solutions to our challenges, rather than just theoretical slogans and over-diagnosis of our problems.” A good citizen is engaged in several practices such as writing letters to the editors of newspapers and their representatives in the parliament and engages in community groups to discuss concerns and feasible solutions to issues such as “playgrounds, traffic safety, rubbish collection, water and sewage networks, and maintenance of roads and infrastructure”.

The third guiding principle is “harnessing disagreement into compromise while maintaining dialogue”. When it comes to political dialogue, disagreement is a probability. It is important to maintain the discourse peaceful and follow the assertion that a thesis needs an antithesis to form a synthesis. He highlights that discourse in general should happen around tables not through means of demonstrations. Demonstrations are nonetheless protected by the constitution; however, it should be a “last, not first resort”. Here one can sense the precautionary tone especially after what demonstrations brought to Egypt for example. The demonstrations in Egypt provide a proof that demonstrations are the least peaceful way of expressing one’s opinion. It causes chaos, destruction, crimes, and de-development, and eventually parties will have to sit around tables to settle the differences.

The fourth principle is “shared gains and sacrifices”. In this section the king states that in democracy, things are always changing. There are no permanent conditions and no permanent answers. Then he outlines a set of practices necessary for any state that is on the verge of democratization. First one has to have a sense of pride for the progress of the nation, then a sense of strength in overcoming the challenges. Third, one has to be involved in the making of the future through means of voting. Fourth, respectful discussions whether in in person or online. Fifth, respect amongst the citizens. After that, he urges the citizens to familiarize themselves more and further practice the rights guaranteed to them by the constitution.

The king raises the important question of how do we measure progress? He simply proposed that the right path is the one involving constant engagement in democratic practices. “We will know we are on the right path, because we will see ourselves getting better and better” at the five practices he listed above. I believe that another way to measure progress is through voting turnout, whether or not the level of clientelism decreases, and through the extent to which the people’s voices are heard. The king urges the citizens to engage in political discourse with the representatives and the newspapers, yet the parliament as a whole and the representatives individually shut their doors in the faces of the citizens. Let alone the fact that chief editors would not even publish anything radical. Thus, the intermediaries such as the parliamentarians and the chief editors are not well engaged in the discourse causing the network to be awkwardly interrupted.

The second paper, titled “Making Our Democratic System Work For All Jordanians” , discusses the theoretical transition to a parliamentary government. There has been progress in the last few years. One third of the constitution was amended. The Constitutional Court and the Independent Electoral Commission were established. One can argue that the system is not infected. The machine/ the system is decent with the exception of a few major but fixable problems. After reading the first paper and drawing some analysis, one can tell that the problem is with those in charge of the parliament. It is “the ghost” rather than “the machine”.

Transitioning into a democratic system is not an easy step to make. Often times in the developing world, we see zigzags between democracy and authoritarianism. For example, Nigeria has had four republics so far. King Abdullah respects O’Neil’s definition of democracy in his second paper. He asserts that participation will prevail with enhancing the civil society. The government “will ensure a level playing field for political competition”. As for liberty, he assures that the freedoms and rights of everyone especially the minorities will be safeguarded by the constitution.

A country that is considering democratization has a few successful modules to pick and choose from. Ultimately there are three democratic schemes. In a republic, there are two choices: presidential and parliamentary. In a presidential like France, the public votes for a president who appoints the cabinet directly (sometimes through the approval of the parliament). In a parliamentary system like Turkey the prime minister, from the parliament’s majority party or coalition, appoints the government. The third scheme is a constitutional monarchy, which looks much similar to the parliamentary system in which the prime minister is the leader of the legislature’s majority party and picks the cabinet.

Jordan is seeking this system to ultimately follow the models of Spain, Belgium and England- Jordan’s most recent colonizer.

Jordan, ever since its independence, has been trying to adopt this model. In fact up to the date of publishing this paper, there have been 16 parliaments in Jordan. This means that the most basic prerequisite for a parliamentary system already exists and functions decently. The next challenge is changing how the prime minister and his cabinet are designated. Historically the prime minister used to be handpicked by the king for his expertise.

Then the prime minister selects his ministers, and then the whole government has to pass the parliament’s vote of no confidence. While the rule states that these officials should be members of the parliament, it had been a rare exception. The intended goal is to make the designation of the prime minister the parliament’s job just like the constitution states. The change states that the new prime minister “while not necessarily an MP, will be designated based on consultation with the majority coalition of parliamentary blocs.” If they fail to do so, the discussion will be open to all blocs. Either ways, the designated PM will have to pass the parliament’s vote of confidence.

Ideally, the discussion would be easy and the PM would be the leader of the majority party or coalition of parties. The king outlines three conditions necessary for the development of a functioning parliamentary system. First of all is the emergence of a true party system. “As more seats in Parliament come to be held by political parties that compete nationwide, our ability to draw Ministers from those seats will become greater.” The challenge with this is that blocs are harder to be grouped under specific political ideologies. Therefore, I suspect that the resulting legislative body would constitute in an immature parliament that lacks true political ideologies.

The second condition is that Civil Service will need to more professionalism to advise the ministers. These new ministers might not have any previous experience, so it is important that they are well supported by the experienced civil service officials. This is extremely critical but could be problematic. Even with the presence of highly experienced ministers, there is still unprofessionalism and corruption amongst bureaucrats.

The third condition is to make a change in parliamentary conventions served to support the idea of a parliamentary government. Ultimately the intent is to have two major blocs: the majority and the oppositions. Blocs need to acquire the methods through which they learn how to develop shared views on policy platforms. The same goes for the oppositions who need to provide the necessary pressure by offering alternative policies.

It is highly unlikely for coalitions that came together based on geo-tribalism to be able to develop modern political ideologies. The representatives must be able to cover all aspects of political and economic development. The parliament must include representatives who are expert in the fields of environmental development, family planning policies, infrastructure, employment mechanisms, and trade strategies and more. Since some of the ministers might be also MPs, they need to expertise at the same level as the current ministers. However the problem is that the Jordanian public is probably not ready to vote for a candidate whose primary focus is environmental sustainability. This results in a transition gap/ trap in the way that some fields might end up being underrepresented.

The third paper was titled “Each Playing Our Part in a New Democracy” . This paper was published about five weeks after the elections. King Abdullah lays out a few statistics from the results. Voter registration reached 70%, voter turnout was at 57%, 80% of political parties participated, and new MPs make up about 61% of the parliament in a promising gesture of political change. The elections, which were overseen by an independent electoral commission, brought a more representative body including leftists, Islamists, nationalists, and individual activists as well as 18 women.

While this looks like a good step forward, the king still thinks that there is much more to be done. He believes that the electoral system needs more development. That was a major theme in demonstrations. The electoral system must be more representative, nurtures pluralism, and is essentially “conducive to the formation of party-based parliamentary governments.” The election’s PR portion made up 27 seats only. Each party/bloc had to have 27 candidates to qualify as a bloc and since there were about 60 blocs running for elections, there was about 1600 candidates running for only 27 seats. Even if one party somehow wins all 27 seats, it is still not a majority since the SMD’s portion makes up 123 seats.

Nonetheless there were a few changes in the mechanisms through which the parliament functions. One of them was a change to the vote of confidence. While in the past a majority was required to deny confidence, now a vote of confidence is required to approve of the prime minister, the government, and their policies. Another change is introducing consultation mechanisms to the parliament. They have to agree on a designation of a prime minister. The prime minister in return has to consult with the parliament on his cabinet choices as well as their policies.

The paper outlines three fundamental requirements. First there has to be a more developed system of checks and balances to preserve the separation of powers. Second is the development of party blocs. These blocs need to become “increasingly platform-based and eventually party-based.” This gives way to the formation of a majority and their cabinet on one hand, and an opposition and their shadow cabinet on the other hand. The third requirement is the development of professional civil service.

After that, the paper outlines the roles everyone has following the landmark that the elections were.

Parties, parliamentarians, the prime minister and council of ministers, the monarch, and lastly the citizen all have specific roles now. In essence political parties are to become more professional and forward looking. They need to run professional political campaigns and provide feasible policies to public concerns. Once they make it to the dome, they need to work together to arrive at clear platforms.

As for the parliament and parliamentarians, they need to change their approach to objectivity rather than opportunism. MPs must want to be in the parliament for the sake of service rather than personal gain.

They also should be able to balance the local and the national interests.

The government’s role led by the prime minister is to formulate and implement a comprehensive programme of action to enhance the prosperity and security.” This program of four years must be presented to the parliament to be held accountable over the years. Overall the expectation of the government is to maintain the confidence of the parliament and ultimately the confidence of the people. As for the monarch, the king believes that it is about time that the role changes from an absolute monarchy to a constitutional one. He will serve to protect the nation’s stability, security, unity, and to overlook essential foreign and national security issues.

He will also remain the head of state and commander in chief of the military. He also imposes on himself to remain the figure to protect the rights of minorities. These changes to the monarch’s role have been noticeable already. While in the past the Jordanian executive system was more of an absolute monarchy where the king is the de facto head of state and government even though the PM is the de jure head of government, nowadays we see a clearer separation where the king is head of state and the PM is the de facto head of government.

As for the citizens, the king outlines three actions through which the citizen can bring about political development. He wants the citizens to be curious and search for the truth instead of taking everything they hear for granted. Second they should provide ideas and solutions to national issues if the government is not providing the best solutions. They need to bring them to the public sphere for a nationwide discussion through blogging, social media websites, petitions, and letters to representatives and newspapers in addition to forming NGOs and community based organizations. The third point is active citizenship, which is also further discussed in the fourth paper, constitutes of three pillars: the right to participate, and the duty to participate, and the responsibility to participate.

The fourth discussion paper is titled “Towards Democratic Empowerment and Active Citizenship” . In order for democratization to flourish, there has to be efforts in enhancing the role of civil society to contribute to the political performance of all institutions “by enrooting a democratic culture across society.” He explains that there are milestones through which one can assess the progress of democratization. One milestone is the official launch of a Democracy Empowerment Program known as “Demoqrati (Arabic for democratic)”.

This program was established to enroot active citizenship in the society through empowering the people with feasible democratic development ideas. It serves to increase transparency and to expand the discussion platforms available to allow all Jordanians especially social entrepreneurs to be more engaged. It will also provide additional support to the existing organizations to expand their activities.

It is also intended to recruit citizens who have great ideas but have not had the chance to be heard. Demoqrati has two guiding principles. First it will not support any party; instead, it will only support organizations to help increase political civic engagement. Demoqrati will also be transparent and open to all Jordanians in an effort to tackle all aspects of democratic development.

In short, the first four papers outlined the king’s vision for reform to build a functioning democracy based on three pillars: “a gradual deepening of parliamentary government, under the umbrella of our Constitutional Monarchy, underpinned by active citizenship”. The fifth and final discussion paper, “Goals, Achievements, and Conventions: Pillars for Deepening Our Democratic Transition” , was published last September, 15 months after the fourth. The king reflects on what has been done to achieve the nation’s goal towards a well functioning democracy.

First of all, it is important to note the difference of what the Arab Spring years have brought to Jordan in comparison with other states. Jordan outlined the goals of its spring from the very beginning. It has been a homegrown effort with the sole purpose of empowering the public into a serious role of decision-making through the representatives, which serves to deepen the parliamentary democracy experience under the unifying constitutional monarchy. Thus Jordan’s efforts so far should be commended in comparison with neighboring states.

In this paper the king highlights more milestones achieved in those 15 months other than Demoqrati. He categorizes the milestones under legislative milestones, institutional milestones, and milestones of actors in our political system.

As for the legislative branch, it has witnessed a revised constitution to enhance the separation of powers. The parliament is set to amend 16 laws to improve their compatibility with the constitution. It also made progress to improve its effectiveness and internal operations. A set of political laws including the new electoral law as well as laws for parties and blocs were introduced. There was a new state security law that limits the Court’s jurisdiction to only treason, espionage, terrorism, drugs and currency counterfeiting in an effort to make sure civilians are tried only before a civilian court.

There were a few institutional milestones. A constitutional court is in place now with clear agenda. An independent elections commission (IEC) was established, and it had a tremendous role in the last elections. The House of Representatives established a research center for its members who serve in its functional committees. There is a lot of work underway to strengthen the judiciary, the national system for integrity, transparency, and accountability, as well as the National Center for Human Rights (NCHR).
As for the milestones of actors in the political system, civil society organizations have doubled in numbers over the course of five years to reach about 6,000 active organizations. Demoqrati established the youth empowerment window where the youth can submit notes. Over 1000 notes have been submitted during its first two rounds only. Democrati is expected to launch a new initiative called “Akeed (translates into for sure)” in collaboration with the Jordan Media Institute. This initiative is designed to keep the citizens “accurately” up to date by verifying news reports concerning governmental aspects in an effort to increase transparency.

The paper looks forward to the future in an effort to provide answers for possible challenges. It is true that the Jordanian system is more or less capable to overcome challenges, but democracies around the world have shown that it is impossible to anticipate every single situation. One way in which the system can overcome the unanticipated hardships is through conventions- “a set of habits and practices that govern political actors’ conduct.” An example of conventions as noted in the paper is letters of designations by the king to the prime minister in which the king outlines the most prominent contemporary issues in addition to expectations, tasks, and responsibilities. He insists on the importance of further developing current conventions and arriving at new ones. Examples are consultative mechanisms for designating the prime minister, mechanisms for formulating the cabinet and their four-year policy plans, and question and answer sessions from the parliament to the government.

The paper concludes by reasserting that democratization takes time. King Abdullah believes that the nation is on the right track, but he insists on how important it is for every individual, institution, and official to embrace his or her roles within the module. This is not the last paper. He is well aware that Jordan needs so much work to develop its economy. The next discussion papers will “focus on the imperative and opportunity for designing a new and sustainable economic model to improve the prosperity of all Jordanians”.

I have to admit that before reading the fifth discussion paper, I was highly skeptic of what I had read. The king singlehandedly provides a rather idealized plan for democratization in Jordan. I was skeptic of the way it would be received, and I thought it would be mal-executed by those in power. However the last paper showed some terrific milestones suggesting that the plan seems to be well underway. I also thought that the emphasis on political development exceeded any efforts to improve the economy, which was the drive-force of the Arab Spring. The Arab populace was not fed up with oppression as much as it was with poverty and dying economies. However, the king has already started thinking about economic development and promised to publish his thoughts in future discussion papers.

Are these papers an idealized dream or are they a feasible reality? I think they are asking too much, but the only reason why it seems too much is because most of the practices it asks individuals for are practices that are supposed to be a given in any state. Therefore instead of going from negative to zero, the king wants Jordan to go from negative to positive. If everyone does what their status asks them to, as in a citizen being active and a representative being honest and accountable, democratization in Jordan will be a feasible reality. The only way to assess its progress is through creating more milestones. Eventually stability and recurring parliamentary cycles will see Jordan a true democratic state.

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