Jordan takes a small step towards political reform, but at a hefty price
For more than two decades, Jordanian opposition parties and political activists have been calling on King Abdullah II to pave the way for the introduction of parliamentary governments instead of royally appointed ones, as has been the case since the 1950s.
Jordan’s 1952 constitution, one of the most liberal in the Arab world, defines the political system in the kingdom as parliamentary with a hereditary monarchy. Constitutional jurists point to the fact that the king exercises his powers through a council of ministers and that he is not accountable.
But since the mid-1950s, when Jordan had its last coalition government of elected members, the king, then the late King Hussein, appointed prime ministers and cabinet ministers.
Parliament was suspended in the aftermath of the 1967 Arab-Israeli war until 1989, when democratic life was resumed following popular protests. But the tradition of royally appointed governments continued despite the lifting of a ban on political parties.
"Jordanian opposition parties and political activists have been calling on King Abdullah II to pave the way for the introduction of parliamentary governments instead of royally appointed ones"
Under King Abdullah, who took over in 1999, the tradition of appointing governments continued but public angst and frustration over successive governments started to build up as the country adopted unpopular neo-liberal economic policies, under IMF auspices, that critics say resulted in squandering public money, record foreign debt, and the failure to resolve endemic problems of poverty and unemployment.
Following the Arab Spring, which Jordan had handled without spilling blood, the king revealed in 2013 his vision for parliamentary governments, which would be formed by the largest party or coalition of parties in the elected Lower House.
But it took eight long years before the king, driven by rising criticism of rampant public corruption, a stagnant economy, and record unemployment rates, in addition to alleged sedition within the royal family, to name a committee last summer to modernise the political system ahead of forming parliamentary governments.
After three months of deliberations, the committee proposed two draft laws; one for political parties and the other for an election law, both of which would gradually empower political parties leading to the formation of parliamentary governments in ten years’ time.
Despite some criticism of the two pieces of legislation, they were seen as a major leap forward in paving the way for the revival of political life in the kingdom.
But then the government, upon sending the draft laws to the Lower House, unveiled a series of constitutional amendments, covering one-third of the constitution, which it said were necessary in order to cope with the proposed draft laws. In fact, it was a quid-pro-quo formula: adopt the controversial amendments if you want to have your parliamentary governments in the future.
The amendments were so comprehensive in their far-reaching effects that critics have said they could alter the nature of the social contract between the monarchy and citizens if adopted.
Moreover, they were seen as extracting any real power from future governments, who under the constitution have a full public mandate, while handing over such powers to the king, who would then rule without being accountable.
Under the amendments, solely the king would appoint the crown prince, the heads of the military, intelligence department, public security, royal court minister, his advisors, chief mufti, speaker of the Upper House and its members, head of the religious council, and head and members of the Constitutional Court.
Previously, the king would have needed the approval of the prime minister and members of the cabinet to make most of these appointments.
The government defended this amendment by saying it would prevent future parliamentary governments from putting ideology first and politicising the appointment of key jobs in the kingdom.
Another amendment proposed was the formation of a National Security Council to be headed by the king, with the prime minister, minister of foreign affairs, heads of the army and intelligence, among others, as its members. The amendment said nothing of how this council will work or who it would be accountable to.
This created a constitutional dilemma for the legislatures, who could not find a legal path to approving it as it is. Islamists and other opposition figures said the proposed council would create a fourth branch of government that is accountable to no one.
"The constitutional amendments were so comprehensive in their far-reaching effects that critics have said they could alter the nature of the social contract between the monarchy and citizens if adopted"
When legal experts failed to resolve the problem, they suggested that the king would no longer be the head of the council and that it would only convene under a national emergency and that its decisions would be checked by the Lower House. In defending the proposal, Jordanian Prime Minister Bisher al-Khasawneh said the council would be a safety valve for the kingdom.
And then the government suggested that in the future a party or a coalition with the majority could form a government, but only if its members resign as elected lawmakers. The government cited Belgium and the United States as examples of this model, ignoring the fact that both were the exception rather than the rule.
Islamists and other critics protested these amendments, which were never debated in public or by a committee, saying that in fact they would lead to an absolute monarchy and deviate from the spirit of the 1952 constitution.
But by the end of the day, both chambers of Parliament approved the amendments, which will become valid once the king signs off on them.
It was interesting that only one other amendment led to an actual brawl and fistfights in the Lower House in the last week of December, and it had to do with adding the female noun, urduniat, to a chapter in the constitution that says that Jordanians are equal under the law.
Islamists feared that the addition would lead to changes in civil status and inheritance laws, while nationalists suspected it was added to give Jordanian women married to non-Jordanians the right to pass on their citizenship to their offspring; thus overturning the nationality law.
Despite the altercation, the amendment was passed by both chambers with Prime Minister Khasawneh assuring lawmakers that the change came to “honour” women and had no political objectives.
The passing of the controversial amendments was met with anger and rejection by members of Jordan’s largest East Bank tribes and opposition figures for various reasons. Chief among them were fears that they could pave the way for passing a ‘deal of the century’ peace deal with Israel at the expense of Jordanians.
Islamists, who make up the biggest opposition party, felt targeted by the amendments while right-wing nationalists believe an absolute monarchy now has the power to make critical deals at the expense of the Palestinian cause with no oversight by parliament and with weak and ineffective governments in place.
While conspiracy theories went viral, the main objective of the regime could be much simpler and direct.
Jordan can see in the future the formation of parliamentary governments, but the king needed enough guarantees that ideological beliefs would not supersede national security and interests in a country that has survived political upheavals - unlike its neighbours - largely due to the moderation of its pro-Western monarchy.
Osama Al Sharif is a journalist and political commentator based in Amman.
Follow him on Twitter: @plato010