The Role of Parliament in the New Political Systems Script of the Input by Jan Hanrath

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1 The Role of Parliament in the New Political Systems Script of the Input by Jan Hanrath Draft Please do not quote! Arab-European Dialogue Arab Spring and its aftermath Society, State, Religion and Political Culture April 23 to 28, 2012 Cairo, Egypt Ladies and Gentlemen, I was asked to give an input on the role of parliament in the new political systems in the Arab world. Needless to say that this is a very broad topic. Not only is the Arab world a very divers region with very different political systems, traditions and therefore also different contexts for parliaments. It is by no means the monolithic block as it is portrayed sometimes in Western media and perceived so by a large part of the Western public. But also the topic of parliaments and parliamentarism is a very broad one with many facets and aspects worth discussing. Since this is supposed to be just a brief input for further discussion, I will focus on some points that I find of particular interest and importance. This means that I first of all will give a short overview on parliamentary traditions and experiences in Arab countries. After this I will focus more generally on the role or roles that parliaments can or should perform in democracies and list some prerequisites for this. When applying these standards to the new political systems in the Arab world I will focus on the role of parliament as intermediary between the governing bodies and the citizens. Therefore I m going to focus on matters of representation but also on the leading and educating function of parliaments and parliamentarians. When it comes to democracy and democratic structures in the Arab world, obviously it is running far behind other world regions. The upheavals that have been termed the Arab Spring are slowly changing this situation at least in some countries but authoritarian regimes and reactionary elites still weaken the aspirations of large parts of the Arab populations.

2 The constitutions of most of the Arab states that gained independence in the early and middle of the 20 th century provided for regulations for free elections, democratic parliaments and civil rights. The modern constitutional state, democracy and political rights not only were supposed to serve as a safeguard against tyrannical state power as experienced under Ottoman and colonial rule, but also as the representation of national sovereignty and the Arab populations claim to power. In reality however, the picture was and to a large degree still is a very different one. Therefore in the past, elections should less be seen in the context of democracy and democratization but through their design and by their varying degree of manipulation as efforts to save the power elites, to avoid fundamental political change and to open only a very limited outlet for the opposition. This refers largely to parliaments themselves as well. Reforms and liberalizations regarding the rights of parliaments have been rather instrumental for stabilizing the regime in most cases. The ruling elite offered leeway to parliaments for example - to gain support among populations often for unpopular measures like austerity programs, - to domestically and internationally legitimize the regime, - to coopt and control political opposition and weaken opposite views, - to respond to growing demands for political participation particularly from the middles classes without making too much concessions, - to offer an arena where social conflicts could be fought out, - to appear more democratic internationally. This list could be continued. But the point is that the main motivations were to consolidate power and the existing systems. I don t want to overly lessen the recent role of Arab parliaments though. Of course parliaments used new leeway and took advantage of liberalizations. There are many examples where parliaments were able to pressure the ruling elites and the executive. Studies have shown that particularly in the 1990s parliament gained importance throughout

3 the Arab world. Nevertheless, the political opening was often short-termed and the parliaments scope of action was limited by the authoritarian context throughout the Arab world. Since the whole region was set into motion early last year new opportunities open up for democratic institutions in a number of Arab countries. Now we have to think about what that means for parliaments in the new, emerging political systems. What are the roles that are typically given which parliaments play? First of all, parliaments are both governmental bodies and the representation of citizens. On a very general level, parliaments are supposed to function as representation of the population, engage in lawmaking and should hold the executive accountable. In 2005 the Inter-Parliamentary Union at the United Nations issued a report where it detailed some of the parliaments task worldwide. Even though each parliament has its own national traditions and distinctive character, some functions are expected of all parliaments. These are: Law making Approval of taxation and expenditure, generally in the context of the national budget Scrutiny of executive actions, policy and personnel Ratification of treaties and monitoring of treaty bodies Debating issues of national and international relevance Hearing and redressing grievances Approving constitutional change Furthermore the report lists a number of key characteristics of democratic parliaments. They have to be Representative that means socially and politically representative of the diversity of people, and ensuring equal opportunities and protection for all its members; Transparent that means being open to the nation through different media, and transparent in the conduct of its business Accessible that means involving the public, including the associations and movements of civil society, in the work of parliament; Accountable this involves members of parliament being accountable to the electorate for their performance in office and integrity of conduct;

4 Effective this means the effective organization of business in accordance with the democratic values, and the performance of parliament s legislative and scrutiny functions in a manner that serves the needs of the whole population. Each of these points would be worth to elaborate further. But I want to focus on what this means for parliaments in the Arab world and what the main function could be. First of all, against the historical background and referring to the past experiences with parliamentarism it is obvious that parliaments are nothing new in Arab countries and that in most polities they don t have to be build up from the scratch. Like with the constitutional framework in most Arab countries, there are a lot of legal bases that could build the fundament of democratic rule and parliamentary functions if applied properly. In the past though, citizens have been widely detached from decision making in most countries of the region. Arrogant, predatory and at the same time impotent rulers like Ben Ali or Mubarak either ignored its citizens or treated them as meaningless. Governments and their administrative apparatuses were seen by large parts of the populations increasingly not as a means of solution but as the key issue of all problems. The parliaments of the new systems have to cope with this heritage. They are often confronted with a very negative image. But parliament as a political body that not only fulfills legislative tasks but is also directly accountable to the citizens can also contribute to narrow this gap again. Therefore one of the main roles that parliaments should play is that of a conduit between ordinary people and the decision makers. By being in this intermediate position between government and those being governed, it can engage in several activities that are of particular importance in democratization processes, transforming societies and context endangered by violent conflict. From a new institutionalist perspective, institutions like parliaments are variables in their own right. Therefore they are not just reflections of other social, economic, and political

5 phenomena; and also not a mere arena where different opinions are discussed. They influence the distribution of political power within society and can also shape and reshape political cultures. In countries that have little or no experience with democracy, or where parliament functioned as an alibi for authoritarian rule and parties were more or less the prolonged arm of the state and fraught with corruption, the new parliaments can contribute to the establishment or reestablishment of democratic values. Interaction between parliament and citizens should therefore work in two directions: By communicating its actions, parliament can increase its transparency. Through a number of means, e.g. electronic newsletters, local media or community meetings, parliamentarians can inform civil society about the reasons behind their actions on certain issues and to help them understand why parliament acted the way it did. It is very important to acknowledge that only informed citizens can hold their representatives accountable. But also the other way round, members of parliament can tap into the knowledge and resource of civil society organizations to better do their work; or to get to know about grievances or aspirations in their respective constituencies. Therefore the increasing flow of information to the community about parliamentary business and important issues may contribute to the following points: It may stimulate a greater response from the community and improve constituents sense of ownership over decision making, provide parliamentarians with vital knowledge needed to ensure that decision making is responsive to community needs, help the community understand the reasons behind parliament s decisions and arm them with the knowledge to hold public officials and the government accountable for their decisions and actions, and enhance public confidence in parliament as a democratic institution.

6 To sum things up: Unlike during the times of authoritarian rule, when parliament often played the role of securing that very rule and to avoid real political change, today parliaments may have the chance to live up to their democratic functions. This does not only mean holding other governmental bodies accountable in a system of checks and balances and to be active in lawmaking. This does also mean representing all of the country s population with all its minorities, oppositional views and interest groups. It further means fulfilling its role in educating citizens by informing them and to give them the chance to have their voices heard. This all contributes to strengthening the electorate s confidence in parliament as a valuable democratic institution and as an arena where intra-societal conflicts can be solved. References Baaklini, Abdo/Denoeux, Guilain/Springborg, Robert: Legislative Politics in the Arab World The Resurgence of democratic Institutions, Boulder/London Hanrath, Jan: Umbrüche im Nahen Osten - Hintergründe und Handlungsoptionen für westliche Politik und Zivilgesellschaft, INEF Policy Brief 09, Institut für Entwicklung und Frieden, Duisburg Hartmann, Christof: Wandel durch Wahlen? Wahlen, Demokratie und politischer Wandel in der arabischen Welt, Wiesbaden Hippler, Jochen: Wahlen im Nahen und Mittleren Osten, in: Heberer Thomas / Derichs, Claudia (ed.): Wahlsysteme und Wahltypen Politische Systeme und regionale Kontexte im Vergleich, Wiesbaden 2006, pp Inter-Parliamentary Union: Parliament and Democracy in the 21st Century, New York Koelble, Thomas A.: The New Institutionalism in Political Science and Sociology, in: Comparative Politics, Vol. 27, No. 2, Jan. 1995, pp O'Brien, Mitchell/Stapenhurst, Rick/Johnston, Niall (Ed.): Parliaments as Peacebuilders in Conflict-Affected Countries, WBI Learning Resources, Washington Jan Hanrath Institute for Development and Peace (INEF), Lotharstr. 53, D Duisburg Tel.: ( ) ; Fax ( ) ; Website:

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