Is a New Social Contract Really Needed?

Jordan’s prime minister has interpreted this summer’s protests as broad-based desire for a new social contract. This is a mistake.

By Osama Al Sharif

More than two months have passed since thousands of protestors took to the streets to demand an end to IMF-backed austerity measures, and we are still waiting to see how the new Razzaz government intends to deliver on the promises laid out in HM King Abdullah’s letter of designation.

Jordanians have demanded a complete change in approach by governments and an end to Jordan’s rentier system. They want to see a genuine commitment to the rule of law, transparency, and accountability. They want a leaner public sector that is not an overbearing burden on government finances. They also demanded to live in a state that offers decent basic services and takes into account the needs of future generations. Basically, they want a commitment to social justice.

King Abdullah’s letter of designation clearly called for greater clarity in the relationship between the citizen and the state in terms of rights and duties. Razzaz has subsequently spoken about the need to strike a new social contract. But this naturally raises questions about the definition and requirements of this new quid pro quo, and whether it really remedies the problem.

After almost a century since the founding of Jordan, first as an emirate and later as a sovereign state, Jordanians believe that a social contract already exists between them and the Hashemites that’s enshrined in the constitution. Any alteration to that contract requires direct contact between citizens and their ruler with no mediation by the executive branch. Only a freely elected legislature can hold such a debate with the head of state that may lead to mutually accepted constitutional amendments.

It is unwise for the government to take the lead in suggesting a new social contract at this sensitive phase, both domestically and regionally. A mutually acceptable social contract already exists and what is required is for the three branches of government to uphold it in letter and spirit. Jordanians were not calling for a revision of that contract but were protesting specific government policies that were seen as breaching the constitution.

It is then unacceptable for the new government to take it upon itself to present a new social contract, when in fact what is needed is a renewed commitment to the constitution. The executive branch has, over the years, overstepped its power and authority and now appears to be more powerful than the other two branches of government. And yet there is a belief that the prime minister does not exercise his general mandate.

What the Razzaz government needs to commit itself to should be more specific, other than hiding behind the broad philosophical mantra of a new social contract that may lead to confusion, overlapping of powers and authorities that threaten the foundations of our constitution. Instead, the Razzaz government should reiterate its strict adherence to the constitution under the oversight of parliament and the judicial branches.

Razzaz should announce under the Dome his government’s adherence to the following:

Strict commitment to the constitution especially in areas where it spells out the jurisdiction and mandate of the executive, legislative and judicial branches.

Commitment to citizens’ right to free speech and to gather peacefully to express their opinions.

The right to organize into political parties and unions.

Initiating a debate that would deliver a clear outline of peoples’ rights and duties under the constitution.

A thorough revision of all tax related laws and regulations underpinning the legal bedrock that there should be no taxation without legislation.

A commitment to adhere to fiscal and monetary transparency and responsibility in general and specifically covering local and foreign borrowing.

A commitment to adopt a plan to reduce the size of government and to review all laws and regulations pertaining to pensions in the public sector.

A commitment to initiate an open and transparent debate with the private sector in order to help it assume its proper role in job creation and in growing the economy.

A commitment to be open and transparent in fighting corruption and to allow for independent enquiries into the sale of public companies going as far back as 2003.

Allow for a critical review of the effects, benefits and drawbacks of major projects and laws such as decentralization.

A commitment to present to the Lower House an Election Law that meets the aspirations of Jordanians and breathes life into a stale political life that will finally lead to the formation of true parliamentary governments.

These are the basic demands of Jordanians and they present a much needed reform agenda by any government from now on. There is no need for a new social contract since this is something that concerns the ruler and his subjects, and so far it has stood firm and sound for decades.