The (ab)use of Arab parliaments

Despite the massive challenges and divisions in Yemeni politics, according to the Yemen Times there is one topic on which there is near unanimous agreement: the failure of parliament’s performance over the past year.  Members of all parties, including a member of the party of President Saleh, the General People’s Congress (GPC), have noted the failure of parliament to address the many pressing concerns facing Yemen today.

In a non-democratic setting, it may seem odd that a member of the President’s party would criticize parliament, especially given that the GPC has a massive majority in the body.  Given that little progress was made, it would seem that there is no one to blame but the GPC and in turn the president.  Yet, blaming parliament even when it is loyal to the head of state is common throughout the Arab world.

Parliaments exist in many Arab countries but are largely toothless.  Most official decisions are made without significant influence from parliament.  Yet, despite their lack of power, parliaments prove quite convenient in certain instances.  For example, when King Abdullah of Jordan faced criticism from Western countries for the country’s laws governing honor killings, he submitted changes to parliament.  These relatively unpopular changes were quickly rejected and the King could say to Western governments that he tried to make the changes, but that he could not do so without parliament’s approval and this was simply the democratic process at work.

For the purposes of domestic politics, parliaments serve another useful purpose regarding the attribution of blame.  When something goes wrong or no progress is made on an issue, it is parliament’s fault.  However, when something goes right, it is the president or monarch who deserves the credit.  While a smokescreen, the existence of parliament somewhat complicates how individual citizens can attribute political blame in these societies.

Moreover, the weakness of these parliaments and the failure of them to affect regime policy can help undermine efforts at democratization.  While elections are not free and fair in these countries, individuals are given the ability to vote for parliament.  This small taste of democracy can then be held up by the regime to demonstrate the disaster that full democratic governance would represent.  In other words, by criticizing parliament’s performance, the Saleh and other leaders can demonstrate that remaining in power is necessary to keep the country functioning.  For, imagine the counterfactual: if parliament performed this badly with no power, what if full power were handed to them?

Seen in this light, maintaining weak and ineffectual parliaments, which represent elements common to democratic governance, can actually help the regime maintain control.  The more that ordinary citizens believe parliaments are ineffectual, the less demand there will be to give devolve more power from the head of state.  Accordingly, the continued weakness of these parliaments can actually weaken calls for democratization and help undergird non-democratic regimes.


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