The political reform process continues

Despite a challenging regional environment, Jordan continues to move ahead with the reform process it began over a decade ago. The process has focused on building consensus for reforms that are home-grown and sustainable, the results of which are starting to materialise. Jordan’s gradual and evolutionary approach aims to put in place an efficient system of checks and balances alongside other building blocks of parliamentary democracy, as well as expand citizens’ participation in the process of decision-making.

Parliament

The bicameral parliament, known as the National Assembly, consists of the popularly elected 150-seat House of Representatives (Majlis Al Nuwaab) and the Senate (Majlis Al Ayan), with a maximum of 75 seats, appointed by the king. In June 2012 the single-vote electoral system of the lower house was changed to a two-vote system, under which MPs are chosen from both local constituency and electoral lists on the national level. In the most recent elections for the House of Representatives, which took place in January 2013, voter registration reached 70%, while voter turnout topped 56.7%, one of the highest rates in Jordan’s history. Elections were monitored by local and international observers and administered for the first time by the Independent Election Commission.

Government

The current prime minister is Abdullah Ensour, who was reappointed after the January 2013 parliamentary elections. Ensour was nominated as prime minister by the majority of parliamentary blocs and independents during a process of parliamentary consultations the king held with House of Representatives, marking a shift in how prime ministers are appointed and introducing the first parliamentary government under King Abdullah II’s reign.

Opposition

With parliament largely dominated by independents representative of local interests in their constituencies, the main party-based political opposition consists of the Muslim Brotherhood and its local political wing, the Islamic Action Front (IAF). The IAF boycotted the last two general elections, in 2010 and 2013, in protest at what it regards as an unfair election law, and is therefore not currently represented in parliament. However, a centrist Islamic grouping is among the House’s active blocs, along with other leftists MPs.

Reform Efforts

Over the past 15 years, Jordan has been undergoing an extensive process of political reform, which has been moving forward relatively rapidly in recent years. In September 2011 the government and parliament approved a number of constitutional amendments put forward by a committee set up by the king in April 2011, against a backdrop of regional political unrest. In total around one-third of the constitution has been amended since 2011.

Changes included the establishment of an Independent Election Commission and a Constitutional Court, the consolidation of individual rights and freedoms, as well as the introduction of limits on some of the king’s powers. Constitutional reforms resulted in a wave of legislative reforms to ensure compatibility with the more progressive constitution, including amending the Political Parties Law and the State Security Court Law and creating a teachers’ association.

As part of an effort to foster public dialogue on the reform process, in September 2014 the king, in the fifth of a series of discussion papers that he has published in recent years, reiterated his commitment to “a gradual deepening of parliamentary government” under the umbrella of a constitutional monarchy, with the aim of “reaching an advanced stage where a party-based majority bloc or coalition of blocs forms a government”. Jordan’s end goal in this process is to have platform-based national political parties compete in elections, with the majority party or coalition forming a government and the minority acting as a shadow government in parliament.

On the citizen side, Jordan is investing in civil society and educational programmes to empower citizens and build a culture of democracy in the medium to long term. A key initiative in this field is the Democracy Empowerment Programme (Demoqrati), which runs programmes supporting social entrepreneurs, an open society, and informed and engaged citizens.

Constitutional Amendments

In August 2014 parliament approved two further constitutional amendments. The first gives the king full powers of appointment and dismissal over the chairman of the joint chiefs of staff and the head of the General Intelligence Department. According to the government, the changes are necessary to ensure the separation of powers, and to prevent such positions and institutions from becoming politicised or destabilised as Jordan moves toward a more political party-oriented parliament. The government also reiterated that both positions will remain under parliamentary oversight, which encompassed Jordan’s defence and Royal Court budgets for 2014. The second change extended the mandate of the Independent Election Commission to cover administration of all major elections and not just parliamentary polls. This is related to plans to decentralise power so that local issues are dealt with locally, enabling the House of Representatives to assume wider legislative and oversight responsibilities at the national level, without having local services dominate the role of MPs.

Related political reforms currently being worked on by the government include a draft political parties law to strengthen parties. The authorities also appear set to amend the electoral law again. In September 2014 the minister of political and parliamentary affairs, Khaled Kalaldeh, said that the government was finalising a new law that it would submit to parliament in 2015. The government and judiciary seek to consolidate the respect of human rights and public freedoms as a key part of the reform process by implementing the National Centre for Human Rights’ 2012 recommendations.

Foreign Relations

Jordan has close ties with Gulf states (especially Saudi Arabia and the UAE). For example, in 2011 the GCC agreed to provide the kingdom with $5bn in support over five years.

Jordan signed a peace treaty with Israel in 1994 and a trade agreement in 1995 – though ties remain subject to intermittent tensions – and has close relations with the Palestinian Authority. As a direct descendant of the Prophet Muhammad, one of the greatest responsibilities of the king is to protect the Arab identity of Jerusalem and its Muslim and Christian holy sites.

Outside the region, the kingdom also maintains good relations with the US and the EU, with which it has a free trade agreement and an association agreement, respectively. In 2011 the EU adopted negotiation directives for a comprehensive trade agreement with Jordan and three other regional states, and in 2014 it began to work on a sustainability impact assessment as part of this process.

Jordan has eight free trade agreements, giving it market access to over 350m customers regionally and over 1bn worldwide, in addition to more than 35 investment protection and promotion agreements and more than 30 double taxation avoidance agreements.

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