Jordan's parliament in the eye of the pandemic storm

There are doubts parliamentary elections will be held by April 30  as constitutionally ordained.
Sunday 12/04/2020
Timeline unsettled. A 2019 file picture shows Jordan's King Abdullah II delivering an address during the opening ceremony of the fourth ordinary session of the Parliament. (DPA)
Timeline unsettled. A 2019 file picture shows Jordan's King Abdullah II delivering an address during the opening ceremony of the fourth ordinary session of the Parliament. (DPA)

AMMAN - Mystery surrounds the fate of the current Jordanian parliament, which is approaching the end of its constitutionally ordained term as the kingdom is busy managing an unprecedented situation against the backdrop of the coronavirus outbreak.

Besides political uncertainties, Jordanians have serious fears of catastrophic consequences that may affect the country's already exhausted economy and spark a chain of social unrest.

The House of Representatives' constitutional term ends April 30 and Jordanian King Abdullah II previously said that new elections would be held in a timely manner and that there is no room for postponement. However, the coronavirus pandemic has reshuffled all agendas and made it likely that this constitutional time frame will not be respected.

There are growing concerns in Jordan about the government's failure to meet the challenges imposed by the coronavirus pandemic, not just in terms of limiting the horizontal spread of the infection and the number of victims, but in terms of protecting the economy from a crippling fallout. Faced with a serious decline in international aid, the kingdom’s economy was already going through very difficult times.

There have been rumours that Jordan could resort to martial law or a state of emergency, during which a military council would manage the crisis, if it is unable to effectively manage the crisis through the framework of its current Defence Law.

As the issue of martial law began to be debated, Parliament Speaker Atef al-Tarawneh said that the decision to impose martial law lies with King Abdullah II alone. The law would drastically restrict freedoms in the country.

Tarawneh pointed out that it is too early to talk about parliamentary elections in light of the coronavirus pandemic, especially since Article 48 of the constitution clearly stipulates that elections must be held within the four months preceding the end of parliament's constitutional term. If elections are not held by the end of the parliament’s term or delayed for any reason, the current parliament would remain in place until a new legislative body is elected.

Jordan previously activated Chapter 125 of the constitution in the 1950s and 1990s. Chapter 125 states that, in the event of a serious emergency where the measures provided by Article 124 of the constitution (which activates the Defence Law) are deemed insufficient for the defence of the kingdom, the king, based on a recommendation from the cabinet, would use his powers to declare martial law throughout the country or in parts of it.

The king may issue, by virtue of a royal decree, any instructions necessary for the kingdom's defence, regardless of the provisions of any law in force, and all persons who are in charge of implementing these instructions remain subject to the legal responsibility that arises from their actions vis-à-vis the provisions of the laws until they are relieved of that responsibility by a special law passed for that purpose.

Economist and former Deputy Prime Minister Jawad al-Anani was the first to raise the idea of ​​implementing these exceptional provisions a few days ago in an interview released by Jordan's official news agency Petra, in what seemed to be an attempt to gauge public opinion and that of active political forces. As expected, the reaction was mixed. There was strong opposition from some parties, such as the Muslim Brotherhood, while others were more reserved.

To justify his stance, Anani said that “the situation is dangerous and Jordan would need two years of martial law to be able to overcome the local economic aftermath of the coronavirus pandemic. Deciding (painful) surgical measures in the economic affairs ensures that each party of society lives up to its responsibilities. The national interest must be held above the interests of the individuals, and when all efforts come together as one, we will see the end of the tunnel.”

The former government official also warned that “the government’s budget is going to suffer from a large deficit in addition to the pre-crisis deficit, which exceeded one billion dinars ($1.41 billion), due to the consumption trend of individuals favouring satisfying their basic needs, and which avoids taxes to a large extent; the government, however, is going to have to resort to foreign debt and close its eyes on increasing the percentage of this debt to the GDP.”

Political observers say the government is very likely to resort to martial law if their initial efforts to contain the crisis fail, which could well happen as much of the public continues to breach government measures.

Reported breaches of curfew measures by two parliament members, Fawaz Al-Zobi and Habis Al-Fayez, have sparked a public outcry. It also led to more criticism of parliament, which activists have long accused of being inefficient and acting as a tool for the executive branch.

The incident forced the parliament speaker to come out and assert that “the rights of the parliament are protected by the constitution and that deputies continue to be protected by constitutional immunity until the end of their regular terms.” He also stressed that “when members of parliament abide by the times of the curfew, it does not eliminate their role or restrict their prerogatives to monitor the performance of the government and the ministers.”