Jordan tries balancing act introducing reform
AMMAN - Jordan revised laws and parts of its constitution to enact reforms that would ultimately see the monarchy take a back seat. A resuscitated legislature would act as a watchdog to a parliamentary-picked prime minister, whose cabinet would run daily affairs of the country.
It may take a few years before King Abdullah II or his eldest son and heir, Prince Hussein, surrender most of their power to the legislature. Abdullah once said that, although he would eventually step aside, he plans to retain the defence and foreign affairs portfolios under royal domain.
Much of the legwork for the broader power-sharing future plan has been taking place over the past five years, underlining Abdullah’s commitment to reforms he promised to transform Jordan’s absolute monarchy into a constitutional kingdom with a parliamentary system of government.
Most significantly, several laws and nearly half of the constitution have been rewritten to allow for electing a prime minister from a parliamentary majority, rescinding the king’s privileged role of appointing the premier. Elections are expected late this year or in early 2017.
Other changes include limiting the king’s powers to postpone parliamentary elections, dissolve the legislature and rule by decree, keep a cabinet in office or reappoint prime ministers dismissed by parliament.
“Having an elected prime minister in office means effectively the start of the new system of power-sharing,” said one-time prime minister and former Senate speaker Taher Masri. “The fact that the king is willing to do so underlines his longstanding commitment to reforms and shows that our constitutional monarchy is maturing.”
In November 2010, people took to the streets in northern Jordan, demanding an end to the nearly free hand given to Jordanian security services, especially in the arrests of activists.
At the outset of the revolution in Egypt in January 2011, Jordanians poured into the streets demanding more public say in decision-making. However, no calls were made to oust the king.
Weathering the fallout of the “Arab spring” uprisings, Abdullah pressed ahead with reforms on immediate and longer-term tracks.
The immediate path saw less police visibility on the street, allowed a new prime minister with a reputation of being an “honest and clean” politician to take office, permitted the introduction of more transparent laws and the state became more tolerant to public criticism, removing restrictions on public gatherings and allowing impromptu protests.
Critics, however, rebuked the slow pace of reforms, accusing the king of back-pedalling.
“So far, the changes are cosmetic and we have not felt any tangible results,” said Hamza Mansour, leader of the Islamic Action Front, Jordan’s most organised political opposition and the political arm of the dissolved Muslim Brotherhood.
That is exactly what Jordanian officials argue: that the long-term plan of a constitutional monarchy is still way ahead but that preparations have started for taking the process one step at a time to reach that goal.
“The changes in the laws and the constitution require time to be prepared and enacted,” Information Minister Mohammed Momani said.
“A home-grown democracy with a shared system of power can’t happen overnight. It’s a process that takes time to be initiated and to take hold.”
Officials admit that regional upheavals may have slowed the pace of reform.
Wars in neighbouring Syria and Iraq sent hundreds of thousands of refugees to Jordan, straining its resources and pushing the country’s moribund economy into near-bankruptcy.
The rise of Islamic State (ISIS) militants in Iraq and Syria and their menace to Jordan’s stability and domestic security also affected the enactment of reforms.
In April, a set of constitutional amendments, the fourth since 2011, caused a stir, with sceptics dismissing the king’s reform plan altogether as “political manoeuvring”.
The amendments defined the responsibilities the king would retain, including “individually” appointing his crown prince, or regent, the Senate speaker and members, the head and members of the Constitutional Court and president of the Higher Judicial Council, the army’s chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, the General Intelligence Department director and the Gendarmerie chief.
Former prime minister Faisal Fayez said the king retained the prerogative to appoint top judicial and security positions to “keep such key sovereign posts from being politicised”.
“All we care for is the well-being and continued stability of the country and the success of this process”, said an official, speaking to The Arab Weekly on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of his information.
Still, many challenges remain. One involves overhauling a multiparty system, which was revived in 1992 after a several-decade ban but lacks maturity. Jordan has 33 splintered political parties with outdated ideologies, such as Marxism inspired from the collapsed Soviet Union and a Ba’ath-like party now disbanded in Iraq and fading in Syria, that died out elsewhere.
The king said a more viable system would have the parties merge into two or three mainstream political groups with clear national agendas and which can field candidates and compete in elections.
Voting has often depended on family connections and tribal affiliation, producing docile legislatures with conservatives pushing against updating laws. At one point, Jordan’s king and queen fought an uphill battle in parliament to introduce a stronger punishment for men who kill female relatives in “honour killings”. The king and queen tried to make the punishment on par with premeditated murders but lawmakers argued that a harsher punishment encouraged women to commit vice.