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Political reform necessary for government, Parliament to restore legitimacy

Dec 15,2018 - Last updated at Dec 15,2018

Wherever we fail in our analysis of what is causing disgruntlement among the people in Jordan, analysts invariably point to a lack of trust in the government. And it is apparent. Whatever the government announces, and regardless of how they package any decision, Jordanians pick it apart, poke fun at it and, in many cases, reject it outright.

Officials, privately and publicly, lament that Jordanians have become inexhaustible self-appointed critics and that there is nothing that the government can do to win their favour. They, more often than not, recently, have decided that it might be better to just plod along without necessarily expecting public approval or support, in the hope that one day, Jordanians will wake up to the benefits of the government’s plans for the country and the people.

The disconnect is growing larger, not only between the people and the government, but also among Jordanians themselves, who have become divided and dichotomised over critical questions facing Jordan: Is Jordan a conservative country or a modern/secular one, are we inward looking or facing towards the world and embracing globalised common interests, do we want to hear the Friday sermon over speakers from the pulpits or do we think they should be limited to indoor speakers, do we open education to multiple philosophies, cultures and social constructs or do we wrap our offspring solely in our declared values or Arabism, Islamism and Jordanianism.

Even at the most basic human level we are divided. We cannot agree whether we, as a people and as a state, respect women as equal human beings and citizens.

And as a result, the trust Jordanians have in each other’s motives and their consideration for each other’s interests has been broken. And similarly, as I said above, Jordanians, also collectively, cannot trust the government, which, being non-ideological and without true political colour, appears to be behaving like a chameleon that changes colour based on its immediate interest rather than a declared long-term “ideology” or, at least, a uniform thought process that the people can refer to.

In saying all of this, I am not really pointing to anything new. As I said earlier in this column, everyone in the country knows that Jordanians do not trust the government, this one and those before it, and Jordanians do not actually trust each other to accept the diversity of opinions and beliefs that naturally comes with a more heavily populated country like Jordan has evolved into.

What I do not think we speak enough of is whether the government actually trusts the people. In fact, the question really should be: How can the people trust a government, in the broad definition of government, that consistently behaves and operates on the assumption of distrust in the people and lack of faith in their political maturity? It may be that the answer to this question will really lead us to a considered answer as to why we appear to be drifting away from each other, institutionally and as individuals, and ultimately to putting plans to help us mend, overcome and, in fact, come together to face the challenges of this critical moment in our history.

So, does the government, in its wider definition, trust Jordanians to do the right thing?

Judging from a quick historical analysis, it would appear that the government does, at certain critical moments, appeal to the people to carry the burden and/or support the government. But in fact, institutionally and legislatively, it is clear that the government almost always legislates with the direct objective of cementing its authority over the people’s decisions and limiting their democratic privileges and citizen rights.

It is easy enough, at first glance, to conclude that the government does not actually trust the people.

And I suspect that that is the simple truth behind this back and forth, where Jordanians consistently demand political reform and are met by the equally consistent demotion or marginalisation of political reform as a government priority.

We have basically had this dance, where Jordanians would be saying to the government: “Show us you trust us by giving us more political, economic and social say,” and the government would respond by saying: “We theoretically believe that you should be trusted because we are a well-educated bunch who understand the concept of democracy, but aaah, we really cannot bring ourselves to do it. We do not think we can trust you yet, so show us you are trustworthy just one more time and we will see.”

The frustration has escalated over the years, and now we are seeing the manifestation of that annoyance spilling into disrespect and loss of faith in state institutions.

This comes at a time when Jordan, more than any other time in its history, needs to be building upon and cementing its legitimacy as a state and a nation, and certainly cannot afford to have anything chipping away or undermining it.

And political legitimacy is an abstract, yet essential, pillar of any serious understanding of the value of democracy. Democratic processes provide validation at regular intervals. They remove doubt, mainstream values, challenge fears but, more importantly, they reinstate political legitimacy. It is a simple fact.

Political parties that gain the support of the people for their programmes are validated and legitimised by that process. Parliament, elected on the basis of a fair, free and open electoral formula, is legitimised as an institution and receives its clear mandate to legislate and monitor. The government, when it executes a strong programme that had received validation from the Parliament/people, has more legitimacy in running the country. Yes, the process is painful, but it is ultimately very rewarding.

Jordan has a unique situation as a monarchy in that the Hashemites received the validation of the Jordanian people at the inception of the state and until today, and without any doubt, Jordanians have revalidated the political legitimacy of the Hashemites almost to the detriment of any other political body in the Kingdom.

Such validation has been received over many decades through building relationships with the different population groups in Jordan and by responding to the collective aspirations of Jordanians during difficult and good times. Jordanians, therefore, have come to trust the Hashemites to place the country’s best interest first. The King is also, uniquely, looked to as the arbiter between Jordanians on the one hand, and the government and Parliament on the other.

One would expect that Parliament and government, in a healthy and democratic set-up and as representative institutions of the people’s democratic will, should not be at odds with the people. 

What is happening now is not conducive to building mutual trust.

What we have in front of us is a chaotic scene where the people’s voice, when denied the democratic pathways to expression, reverted to street demonstrations and media protestations, appealing to the King directly, in order to be heard.

The government, in this environment, is unable to build solid bridges of communication with the people, and Parliament is not seen as representing the people and so it, too, has lost its political role as an institution that, in normal circumstances, would have acted as the venue to deliver the political parties’ programmes and legislate those programmes into laws. And political parties, faced with the reality of paralysed institutions and a debilitating legislative environment around elections, do not know how to take up their role as the organising tools for people’s priorities and political aspirations.

It is, therefore, critical that the government and Parliament take immediate steps to restore order and logical processes to the political scene. They must take the plunge now and launch a serious political reform process that signals, once and for all, that they trust Jordanians to scrutinise them, hold them accountable and eventually validate and legitimise them as institutions first, and as individuals second.

Averting a crisis today cannot happen through security measures alone. It needs a parallel political process to restore political legitimacy of our institutions, and with that the government can, and should, absolutely lay the law and ask people to walk within its parameters.


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