Jordan tries balancing act introducing reform

Sunday 15/05/2016
Jordan’s King Abdullah II (C) reviewing honour guard

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.