Goals, Achievements and Conventions: Pillars for Deepening Our Democratic Transition

By Abdullah II ibn Al Hussein
13 October 2014

Almost two years ago, I started contributing to the national debate on reforms in the Kingdom through a series of discussion papers. In the first four papers, I outlined our vision for reform with an end-goal of building a vibrant Jordanian democracy founded on three pillars: a gradual deepening of parliamentary government, under the umbrella of our Constitutional Monarchy, underpinned by active public participation or what I called “active citizenship”.

Jordan remains resilient in the face of unprecedented regional volatility that surrounds us and the strain it is causing our economy. Despite these challenges, our political reform process has continued, and it is worth reflecting on what has been achieved towards our goal of a vibrant Jordanian democracy since my last discussion paper in June 2013.

Jordan has succeeded in creating its own spring by genuinely embracing the opportunity to speed up existing political reform efforts based on a gradual, inclusive and evolutionary reform model. Let us also remember that the goal for Jordan’s home-grown reform is clear: Empowering people to take the widest role in decision-making through their elected representatives. Deepening our democracy, therefore, translates into deepening our experience of parliamentary governments under our Constitutional Monarchy, reaching an advanced stage where a party-based majority bloc or coalition of blocs forms a government and the remaining minority serves as a shadow government, which would monitor, hold governments to account, offer competing programmes and guarantee democratic rotation of governments.

Deepening our democratic transformation requires the right conditions while moving along interconnected parallel tracks. Our approach has been focused on achieving certain milestones.

Through this fifth discussion paper,* I aim to take stock of the milestones we have already achieved on three parallel tracks. I will also discuss the milestones ahead, particularly the values, practices, roles and conventions that need to continue to evolve in order to sustain the momentum of our reform model and reach our end-goal successfully in a manner that is responsive to our citizens.

 1. Legislative Milestones:
The first track has involved reforming the legislation that represents the skeleton of any democratic system:

  • A revised Constitution has been endorsed, thereby strengthening the separation of powers through additional checks and balances, enhancing freedoms and generating new democratic institutions. Parliament will soon complete amending over 16 key laws to ensure their compatibility with the revised Constitution.
  • A package of new political laws has been passed for the first election cycle after the constitutional revision – including laws related to elections, political parties and public gatherings. Together, these laws help foster political society and party formation across the political spectrum.
  • A new State Security Court Law has been enacted that limits the Court’s jurisdiction to treason, espionage, terrorism, drugs and currency counterfeiting and ensures that civilians stand trial only in front of a civilian court.
  • Finally, the House of Representatives has made important progress in reforming its internal by-laws to help improve its operations and effectiveness. 

2. Institutional Milestones:
his second track has involved strengthening existing and building new democratic institutions:

  • A Constitutional Court is now in place that specialises in interpreting the Constitution and overseeing the constitutionality of laws and regulations in force and to guarantee that the rights of all Jordanian citizens are upheld in accordance with the Constitution.
  • An Independent Elections Commission (IEC) has been established and has won recognition in Jordan and internationally for its role in administering parliamentary elections and ensuring transparency through supervising both the parliamentary and municipal elections. Holding these two sets of elections, within the span of only one year, demonstrated confidence and prospects for political renewal. Building on the IEC’s success, we recently witnessed the endorsement of further constitutional amendments governing its mandate to include expanding it to administer municipal elections and any other elections such as local governorate councils.
  • The House of Representatives has recently established a legislative research centre to support the work of MPs and specialised parliamentary committees, ensuring that their work and decisions are informed by facts and evidence. And in an effort to enhance transparency, the House’s Financial Committee held detailed discussions over the 2014 budgets for the Armed Forces, security agencies and the Royal Court. This precedent was initiated by Parliament to develop its oversight mechanisms.
  • Work is underway to strengthen our Judiciary and enhance the national system for integrity, transparency and accountability, building on the work of the Royal Committee for Strengthening the National Integrity System, the Privatisation Review Committee, a strong independent Judiciary and a number of key oversight institutions, such as the Anti-Corruption Commission, Audit Bureau, Ombudsman as well as other oversight systems across government, private and civil society sectors.
  • Work is also underway to support the National Centre for Human Rights (NCHR), along with a related network of institutions, so that we strengthen our human rights system and ensure government’s follow-up on the recommendations by the NHCR and finalise the National Human Rights Plan.
  • Continue working on all public sector reform paths, through building on achievements in merging institutions within the restructuring plan; in addition to continue developing government services, human resources and decision-making mechanisms.
  • Finally, and consistent with our evolution towards a fully developed system of parliamentary government, important reforms are underway among our national security agencies. The process started back in 2011 when I publicly entrusted the Director of Intelligence Department with the task of reforming this vital national security body. Most significantly, the government is in the process of strengthening the role of the Ministry of Defense, which will be responsible for all non-combat defense matters and operations as part of government under parliamentary oversight.

3. Milestones of Actors in Our Political System:
The third track has involved identifying values and practices at the heart of a genuine culture of democracy and citizen participation, coupled with roles of key democratic stakeholders, all of which requires their continuous development:

  • The values needed for successful democratic transition to parliamentary governments are now familiar to Jordanians and must be enrooted into our culture and society. These values include moderation, tolerance, openness, pluralism, inclusiveness, respect and concern for others, respecting the rule of law and protecting the inalienable rights of every citizen and guaranteeing that participating political platforms get an equal chance to compete at the ballot boxes.
  • Our ‘Jordanian Spring’ must also continue to adopt the following essential democratic practices: demonstrating respect for and embracing dialogue, even in the face of disagreement; accepting the reciprocity of rights and responsibilities as citizens; accepting that shared sacrifices lead to shared gains; turning disagreement into finding compromise, while maintaining constant dialogue; and active and constructive participation by all citizens.

Stakeholders in our political system – the Monarchy, MPs, government, political parties and citizens – must internalise and apply these values and practices in playing their national roles and exercising their responsibilities. These roles and responsibilities represent a major component of the third reform track:

  • The Hashemite Monarchy has the responsibility of providing unifying leadership for all Jordanians and remaining forward-looking to ensure the prosperity not just of the current generation, but of future generations as well. As Head of State and Commander-in-Chief of the Armed Forces, the King is responsible for paramount issues of foreign policy and national security, and for protecting Jordan’s social fabric and religious heritage, acting through the Council of Ministers, which has the Constitutional responsibility to administer state affairs. The Monarchy is also the guarantor of the Constitution and the safeguard of neutrality, stability and justice, which intervenes to break deadlocks between parliaments and governments when they arise.
  • Members of Parliament have the responsibility of serving as honest public servants, who balance local and national interests and match the need for collaboration with government to the need to serve the role of constructive opposition. They are responsible for working with the government on the basis of objectivity, not opportunism, and for maintaining Parliament as a genuine forum of national democratic dialogue.
  • Government, embodied in the Prime Minister, Ministers and Civil Servants, is responsible for developing and executing comprehensive programmes for improving the economic opportunities and social well-being Jordanians deserve and aspire for. In doing so, it must earn and maintain the confidence of Parliament according to its policy plan, set standards of excellence for government performance, and champion transparency, good governance and partnership with the private sector and civil society in words and deeds.
  • Political parties have a responsibility to form into a small number of major nationally-based parties, representing views across the spectrum and to champion clear party platforms.
  • Citizens have the responsibility to participate actively and constructively in all aspects of political life. I am delighted to see that more and more Jordanians embracing the spirit of ‘active citizenship’ at the national and local levels that I called for last year.

Over the last five years, our civil society organisations have doubled in number, reaching over 6,000 active organisations. We want these organisations to continue to strengthen their capacity to address citizens’ concerns, inform policy making and act as national watchdogs.

I am particularly excited to see that over 1,000 concept notes have been submitted in the first two rounds of the Youth Empowerment Window, established by Demoqrati, a democratisation and youth empowerment initiative launched in June last year under King Abdullah II Fund for Development. This includes young Jordanians like Furat Malkawi, who established a model student parliament in her school in Arjan, based on democratic principles and standards, introducing concepts of platforms, campaigning, ethical code of conduct and safeguards for clean elections.  Demoqrati also supported Hannieh Dmour, who produced 12 interactive episodes of a debate programme for local community radio in Karak, encouraging a more positive action-oriented attitude towards local issues, in addition to Mohammad Alumour, whose initiative addresses student violence on campuses through debate sessions and theater as well as training on negotiation, communications and conflict-management skills in universities. This is active citizenship.

Demoqrati will shortly launch an equally important new initiative, Akeed, in partnership with the Jordan Media Institute. By helping to check and verify news reports concerning government and elected politicians in popular media outlets from newspapers to websites, Akeed is designed to help citizens become fully and accurately informed about issues that matter to them - an important new element of making our political system more transparent and accountable to the public.

Looking Ahead:
As I look ahead to the next set of milestones we must set out to achieve, it is important that each of the actors in our political system work hard to fulfill their role and execute their responsibilities with a high standard of excellence and integrity.

While we have made significant progress in recent years, we still have a lot more to accomplish:

  • Lawmakers must improve key political laws, assuring consensus and enhancing our parliamentary government experience. Priority should be given to local governance through finalising municipal elections and decentralisation laws first because upcoming municipal and governorates local councils’ elections are due in less than two years. Once passed, we move to enact the next generation parliamentary elections law since parliamentary elections are due in less than three years and will depend on the outcome of local governance package. Parliament must enhance parliamentary blocs as they encourage political parties and continue developing its conventions including a code of conduct.
  • Governments must continuously develop the public sector and the Civil Service so that they are highly professional, impartial, non-political and capable of producing evidence-based policy proposals advising future ministers of parliamentary governments. Moreover, governments must devise long-term government strategies and action plans, based on effective public consultations, transparency and accountability in announcing budgets and managing national projects. Government must also proceed in creating a Ministry of Defense.
  • Political parties must continue to develop their internal systems and capabilities so that they evolve into well-functioning, professional, platform-based national parties, capable of winning a majority of votes. They must also focus on producing competent leaders who can assume positions in government so as to enable an advanced form of parliamentary government. In parallel, efforts should continue to enhance the performance of parliamentary blocs in the House of Representatives because they can provide impetus towards platform-based national parties.
  • Efforts must continue to build our Judiciary’s capacities, due to its central role in government; in addition to ongoing efforts to build the capacities of the Constitutional Court and the Independent Elections Commission so that they can realise their full potential and perform according to international best practices and become regional centres of excellence.
  • The Royal Committee for Evaluating the Progress of the National Integrity System’s Executive Plan must continue overseeing the implementation of the National Integrity System’s recommendations.
  • Our civil society organisations, including universities and think tanks, in addition to the private sector need to play a greater role in contributing analyses and ideas to the search for solutions to challenges facing the Kingdom. To facilitate that, we must continue investing in research and civil society organisations, scaling up successful initiatives and promoting dialogue, volunteerism, accountability, transparency and the right to access information.

One of the major challenges we face during a period of change is preserving the delicate balance between branches of government, so that they continue to work together effectively and remain independent from each other at the same time. Our Constitution and laws facilitate this balance, but democracies around the world and throughout history have shown that it is simply impossible for any constitution or set of laws to anticipate and prepare for every possible situation.

Part of the answer to striking this delicate balance between cooperation and separation is in our political actors’ ability to make the best decisions in situations that are not clearly covered by stated rules and regulations. This is known as ‘Conventions’ – a set of habits and practices that govern political actors’ conduct. Conventions play an important role in every system of government around the world, especially in parliamentary systems, as I mentioned briefly in my second discussion paper. Although conventions represent habits and practices that are not written down and may not have the force of law, they are vital for the effective and practical functioning of our political system. An important example of one of our important political conventions is the practice of issuing a letter of designation by the King to Prime Ministers. Through this convention, we are able to identify the key tasks and responsibilities awaiting the government. The letter also provides benchmarks to assess the governments’ performance.

Government, Parliament and the Civil Service must, therefore, develop further the conventions that already exist and build new ones as new changes and challenges arise. Areas in which enhancing existing conventions and building new ones are needed to ensure effective collaboration and coordination between our political actors include:

  • The consultative mechanism for designating prime ministers, as our practices of parliamentary democracy continue to evolve.
  • The mechanism for formulating the PM-designate and his Cabinet’s four-year policy plan as part of the basis to receive the House of Representatives’ vote of confidence.
  • Regulating question-and-answer sessions from Parliament to government ministers, in a manner that upholds principles of transparency and accountability and the government’s right to govern without threatening a no confidence vote or calling for an enquiry whenever MPs are displeased with a decision because it contradicts shortsighted personal or group interests.
  • Identifying the roles of Ministers, MPs and the Civil Service during government change, handovers and caretaking periods. These include: durations spanning the consultation period needed to designate a new prime minister, the caretaking period needed until a new government is formed and the duration needed until the House of Representatives grants government a vote of confidence based on its ministerial team and its four-year policy plan.

We still have a lot more work to do to build a mature democracy and realise the end-goal of advanced parliamentary government. We are, nonetheless, moving steadily closer every day towards our goal. I hope what I have offered in this paper, in terms of our national reform model and the milestones we have already achieved, demonstrates how we have been moving along parallel interconnected tracks. I also hope that it gives us all the confidence and encouragement to pursue further reforms and achieve the next set of milestones in our journey.

Let us all remember that our success in realising our reform end-goal hinges on the following: the success of actors in our political system in embracing their roles and responsibilities; enrooting democratic values and practices; enhancing existing conventions and creating essential new ones; and achieving the necessary levels of political maturity needed to achieve every milestone successfully.

It is, accordingly, our collective duty now to embrace democratic values and practices and continue developing them in the years ahead. This can be achieved by enrooting them into our value system, education and laws through awareness campaigns, curricula and empowering national institutions to guarantee these values and practices.

Let me conclude by reiterating that security, democracy and prosperity reinforce each other as the foundations for our future. Current regional challenges represent an exceptionally pressing situation. Our firm political development path is now well underway; but our economy, with the strains it is facing, requires our full attention.

Just as I have used this first series of papers to contribute to the national discussion about the sort of political system we need to build for the future of the Kingdom, my next discussion paper will focus on the imperative and opportunity for designing a new and sustainable economic model to improve the prosperity of all Jordanians, in light of my directives to the government to develop a national economic blueprint for the next decade. The economic and social vision that Jordan needs will be the central theme of future discussion papers that I intend to contribute soon, paving the way for a wider debate on much needed economic and social reforms.