Is King Abdullah’s Discussion Paper Serious?

King Abdullah just released the first royal discussion paper, which is about democratization. It is important to note that the paper was released less than a month prior to the elections – that much of the opposition is boycotting – so the degree to which it can be taken seriously is already limited by the fact that reforms implemented after the election will be enacted by a government lacking legitimacy. Also, despite his ability to talk in generalities about democracy the paper contains little in terms of actual proposed changes.

King Abdullah knows how to say exactly the right things, but as this discussion paper makes clear the gap between his words and what the regime actually ends up doing could not be greater.

With regards to decision-making and leadership, King Abdullah says that there needs to be fundamental changes to “some of our most fundamental practices, chief among them are the way we disagree with each other in the public sphere, and the way we make decisions at the national level.” It is true – changes do need to be made to the way decisions are made at the national level, but currently King Abdullah has virtually unchecked power in making such decisions, so change, by definition, would decrease his power and give it to the parliament and the government which would be responsible to it.

On how people should vote, he says that “To make democracy work, it is critical that we debate, discuss and vote on the basis of the positions put forward by the candidates on key issues facing our country, and not on the basis of personalities or affinities related to geography or family.” It is important to note here that such “personailties or affinities related to geography or family” have been a basis on which the regime has relied on for support, including from independent MPs with tribal affiliations in parliament. King Abdullah knows what to say but is it really likely that he’s going to actually abandon a pillar of support for his regime?

He criticizes protests by saying that “While strikes and protests are constitutionally protected inalienable rights, they are extreme measures that should be tools of last, not first, resort.” There are two problems here – first, all democracies have protests, it’s a way for people to express themselves. Protests take place everywhere. Second, the reason why protests – and sometimes violence – happen is because people are angry and do not see any way to achieve change through the political process. When there is a parliament with vast differences in the number of constituents per district – between 8,000 in the smallest district and 46,000 in the largest (and only 27 out of 150 MPs elected from party lists), then opposition reformist movements do not see the value in taking part in a process rigged against them. In a healthy democracy protests and political participation are not either/or, they both happen at once. Indeed a major purpose of protests is to gain the attention of those involved in politics. For King Abdullah to say that protests should be purely last resort shows once again how out of touch he is with his people.

Finally, he leaves out one major area – the fact that in a democracy no one is above criticism, least of all King Abdullah himself. If Jordan is to have increased debate, discussion, and democratization then it must reject the taboos that are put in place by authoritarianism. Only when no one is above criticism, can we truly say that there has been fundamental change? A discussion paper put out less than a month before a deeply flawed election does not suffice. It continues to be more of the same from King Abdullah and the regime which is determined to continue stalling as long as possible.

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