King Abdullah of Jordan has issued the first in a series of "discussion papers" intended "to share his vision on the kingdom's comprehensive reform process" (full text here).
The paper is basically a lecture about citizenship, calling on Jordanians to participate actively in national debates so as to "breathe life into our democracy".
Referring to the parliamentary elections scheduled for January 23, the king says candidates "are not running for the right to sit in parliament in Amman and earn personal benefits", and he urges the public to challenge them about their policies.
"As candidates come to your neighbourhoods over the next several weeks, they will be seeking to win your trust and your vote. But what they need to realise is that they must maintain your trust and honour your vote over the years to come.
"You have the right and the responsibility, and more importantly a national duty, to engage them in discussion on key issues related to the economy, the country’s reform course and your vision for the future of our beloved Jordan."
The king also urges people to judge candidates on their policies rather than (as often happens in Jordan) on tribal and family connections:
"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."
In principle these are fine ideals. Citizens need to be engaged in political processes and to hold the politicians and officials accountable (if they don't, who will?).
At the same time, though, this comes close to implying that the Jordanian public – through their lack of participation – are responsible for the current economic and political problems. The system that produced those problems, with its institutionalised corruption and patronage, is one that has been presided over by King Abdullah for nigh on 13 years.
Of course, this paper is said to be the first in a series so we can expect others to discuss different aspects of the "reform" process. Maybe in one of them the king will share his thoughts of the role of a monarch in a modern democracy.
Disagreement, the king says, is not a sign of disloyalty: "Respectful disagreement is the basis for dialogue, and dialogue over diverse ideas is the essence of democracy". But with criticism of the king still largely taboo it is unclear how far, in practice, public debate will be allowed to go. The paper talks about dialogue in a spirit of respect, tolerance, give and take, compromise, etc, etc.
On a slightly different level, the king's paper should also be viewed in the context of the coming elections and what many regard as a gerrymandering of the electoral rules to create a parliament of government loyalists. As a result of this, large sections of the opposition will be boycotting the elections.
At two points in his paper, the king takes a swipe at the boycotters:
"Many times — in Jordan as around the world — disagreement, whether personal or political, expresses itself ineffectively in political intransigence, violence, or boycotts, which do not necessarily deliver desired goals. When this happens, it represents a temporary breakdown in democratic practices."
"While strikes and protests are constitutionally protected inalienable rights, they are extreme measures that should be tools of last, not first, resort. And let’s all remember that once the boycott or strike is over, we will still have to work together to reach agreement and proceed hand in hand to forge our shared destiny."
Posted by Brian Whitaker, 31 December 2012