By Ala’ Alrababa’h (Twitter: @a_alrababah)

Photo: AFP

King Abdullah II speaking to the Parliament.
Photo: AFP

On Sunday, King Abdullah II gave the opening speech to Jordan’s 17th parliament. The speech outlined some significant steps that, if implemented, will genuinely reform Jordan’s political system (to listen to the speech click here, to read it click here). Following are some important takeaways from the speech:

The Next Prime Minister

[We] call for a new approach. We will start as part of this new approach with consultations over the government’s formation with the Lower House and parliamentary blocs as they take shape, in order to reach consensus that leads to the designation of a prime minister, who, in turn, will enter into consultations with the parliamentary blocs and other political forces as he selects his ministerial team. He will then seek the Lower House’s confidence based on a policy statement resulting from the consultation process, and on four-year programmes.

I was glad to see that the king has explicitly outlined the role of the parliament in selecting the new prime minister and cabinet. This process, if genuinely implemented, would be a significant step towards democratization in Jordan. King Abdullah has already assigned the Chief of the Royal Court to consult MPs. If MPs don’t screw things up do this well, the parliament would have a great beginning. To do so, the parliament should choose a figure who is not unpopular, perhaps even a new face, to be Jordan’s next prime minister.

Shadow Government

I emphasise here that the development of the consultation mechanism hinges on the development of partisan and parliamentary work, which leads to the emergence of a majority parliamentary coalition on partisan basis. The government would emerge from such coalition, while an opposition parliamentary coalition would take shape to monitor the majority and serve as shadow government.

Having a shadow government in Jordan would be really cool another remarkable improvement. A shadow government could present meaningful opposition to the cabinet. The previous parliament has failed to hold corrupt officials accountable. Strengthening parliamentary opposition to the cabinet would help the county, and may legitimize the parliament in the eyes of Jordanians. Furthermore, not only would a shadow government oppose the cabinet; it would also propose alternative policies. Debating policies and proposing alternatives would better serve Jordanians.

Stability

We also seek to achieve parliamentary and governmental stability, so that Parliament and government can carry out their work in a positive atmosphere over a full four-year term, as long as the government maintains the confidence of the Lower House, and the Lower House maintains the confidence of the people.

Jordan’s last parliament, like many of its predecessors, was dissolved prematurely. In addition, Jordan had five different prime ministers over the past two years. Over the past 20 years (since 1989), no single cabinet in Jordan completed its four years in office. This has proved detrimental, particularly for Jordan’s economy. Thus, Jordan’s successive governments embarked on short-term plans that harmed Jordan’s long-term interests. For example, for a long time, no cabinet wanted to attract criticism by ending Jordan’s costly subsidies.

The Lower House should also develop a binding code of conduct under which deputies commit themselves to constructive parliamentary practices that strengthen their legislative and monitoring performance, and establish a relationship with the government based on competition in the service of the public good, rather than narrow personal gains, and fight wasta and favouritism.

Here, King Abdullah was essentially asking MPs to behave maturely. The king wants to see this parliament complete the full four years. But if MPs become extremely unpopular among Jordanians, the parliament might have to be dissolved. Simply put, the parliament should behave less scandalously this time (For a starter, MPs should stop threatening others using guns while on T.V.).

Further reform

The elections were held under a new election law that was not ideal, although it earned as much consensus as was possible. Therefore, I call for revisiting this law based on an assessment of your experience and for reviewing the electoral system in a way that wins consensus, promotes fair representation, enables parties to compete fairly, enhances the parliamentary government experience and safeguards the principle of pluralism. This system should develop in parallel with the evolution of partisan life.

To say that the law was not ideal is an understatement. But it is good to know that the law’s deficiencies are at least recognized. However, the soft language is understandable. MPs should not be told that they were elected via a poor electoral law (And they already know it!). Still, Jordanians need a new law that encourages party politics.  King Abdullah has asked the parliament to do just that. Jordan’s democratic transition would be compromised if the parliament does not listen.

Media

Reform is also complemented by media outlets that are professional, responsible and balanced as they work to expose the truth, defend freedom of expression and respect the rights of individuals. And we shall proceed, committed to reform and modernisation.

Although the speech did mention freedom of expression, more should have been said about the independence of the media. The speech did not mention recent efforts to censor online media, and the institutionalized censorship of printed media in Jordan. It is true that Jordan has seen an increased number of unprofessional media outlets that distribute unfounded rumors as facts. But this could be taken care of by ‘the market.’ After unreliable media sources publish a few fake stories, Jordanians will learn not to read those media sources any longer. Absurd media censorship is unnecessary, and King Abdullah himself has mentioned that before.

Foreign Policy

[We] should be keen to consolidate our regional and global active role, which is founded on a foreign policy that supports our Palestinian brothers in the restoration of their historical and legitimate rights, and the establishment of their long-sought state on Palestinian national soil. We also support joint Arab action and defend the true image of our Islamic faith as a religion of moderation.

The discussion on foreign policy issues in the speech was brief and broad. Throughout the speech, MPs were encouraged to take an active role in domestic politics. Not much was said on foreign policy. In addition, there was no mention of controversial foreign policy issues in Jordan, such as the relations with Israel or the Syrian conflict. This probably implies that the role of the Parliament in foreign policy decision-making will continue to be limited.

As soon as the Arab Uprisings began, I became hopeful about the prospects of a genuine democracy. For the first few months, nothing really happened in Jordan, and I got disappointed. I was optimistic again when the National Dialogue Committee proposed a modern electoral law, then the parliament rejected the law. I was hopeful with the appointment of Khasawneh as a PM, disappointed at his resignation. I was further disappointed when the previous parliament implemented narrow laws to further the interests of MPs at the expense of Jordan. The online media censorship law made matters worse. King Abdullah’s speech on Sunday allowed me to be optimistic again. You can say I haven’t learned my lesson. That may be true. Or perhaps, just perhaps, we’re finally moving in the right direction.

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