Jordan’s parliament off to a good start despite hiccups

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Whatever else one can say about the speaker of the Jordanian Parliament, he is clearly a quick learner.

The 16th Parliament was off to a rocky start a few weeks ago. While the choice of Faisal Fayez was sealed when all competitors withdrew their candidacy for the top spot, all other positions were hotly fought for. Quickly assembled blocs disintegrated as fast, and even members of the same bloc traded verbal insults; some MPs even slipped into the seats of Cabinet ministers once members of the executive branch left the Parliament building.

Fayez quickly laid down the law and has taken control of Parliament since. When the idea of reaching a consensus for the different committees proved problematic, he went back to the book and insisted that elections for every committee be carried out according to Parliament’s by-laws.

When complaints were made about legislature breaking its own rules about smoking inside a public hall (even if it is the Parliament) the law was laid down and MPs were asked to step out if they were desperate for a whiff.

When the press complained in public about being restricted to a tiny room with a small window and no ventilation, he ordered his staff to deal with the issue and listen to the complaints of the media people assigned to Parliament. Even the issue of live coverage of Parliament sessions was partially resolved, with Jordan TV Channel 2 airing the sessions terrestrially along with Jordandays.tv website and Radio Al Balad.

Some criticised the new Parliament for being a bit too zealous. When the Islamists leader Zaki Ben Rshaid made a statement critical of Parliament, an MP was asked the following day to respond, giving Ben Rshaid exactly what the Islamic Action Front is dying for since choosing to boycott the elections: publicity.

The Parliament also slightly erred in giving MPs way too much time to make their statements in response to the government programme. Instead of the 15 minutes given each MP, it would have been more reasonable time to give five minutes each.

A careful study of the statements shows that what is said in the first 10 minutes is but flowery language. Since there are no parties or blocs for which a proper and longer response to the government would work well, giving every one of the 120 MPs 15 minutes is too long a time for the prime minister and his Cabinet who have to sit through almost every word being spoken in response to their plans.

The absence of the Islamist opposition has been evident, while the current Parliament has yet to develop clear opposition that would challenge the government. Although most MPs aired some criticism against the government, the expected confidence vote overwhelmingly in favour of it makes such criticism ineffective.

While some of these issues reflect a learning curve that is natural when the Parliament has 80 new members, including the speaker, it is refreshing to see the MPs courageous energetic and spontaneous.

Jordan’s problems are many and the country needs a clever and effective legislative branch to provide guidance in making laws, prudence in approving budgets and vigilance in holding the executive branch accountable.

It will take the new Parliament some time before it can adjust to the opportunities and challenges of using the many tools available to it in the performance of its job.

The Samir Rifai government, which has enjoyed most of its first term without having a legislative branch to approve laws or to hold it accountable, will need to adjust to this new body.

The structure of government requires independence of its three branches, as well as their interdependence. How they will work out the relationship among them will have a clear effect on the success of the country as a whole.

Jordan needs to make some tough decisions in the coming years and will need the collective wisdom of the people’s representatives who should keep their ears to the ground and remember that their job is to represent the people to the government and not the other way around.

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