Time of transition: A gradual process of political reform moves forward

 

The past several years have seen significant changes in Jordan, with protests, constitutional reforms and most recently, elections held in early 2013 all reshap-ing the country’s political landscape. While it is still very much a work in progress, King Abdullah II bin Al Hussein has called for a move to a political system in which an elected parliament wields greater power.

MONARCH: Under the monarchical system, the king is the most powerful political figure in Jordan. He is the commander of the armed forces and has the power to veto legislation, which requires a two-thirds majority in both houses of parliament to be overridden, as well as the ability to dissolve parliament. He appoints the prime minister and Cabinet (Council of Ministers), though King Abdullah recently indicated that he would move to gradually make the government responsible to parliament. The king also appoints the judiciary.

PARLIAMENT: The parliament is the bi-cameral Nation-al Assembly, made up of a 150-seat lower house, the Chamber of Deputies, and an upper house known as the Senate. The Senate is composed of appointed rep-resentatives, and the number of senators appointed may only be as high as half the number of Chamber of Deputies members. In addition to parliament’s primary role in passing legislation, a two-thirds majority of the lower house can force the resignation of the Cabinet. The king appoints the members of the Senate, while members of the Chamber of Deputies are directly elect-ed by universal suffrage. Members of both serve terms of four years. In June 2012 the election law was amend-ed from a single-vote system to a two-vote system whereby the electorate chooses a candidate from a local constituency list and another from a national list; 27 of the 150 members of parliament (MPs) are elected from the latter. The law also raised the quota of women in parliament to 15, up from 12, while 12 seats are reserved for Christian and Circassian members. The prime minister, appointed by the king, is not required to be drawn from parliament. However, prior to the January 2013 elections, King Abdullah indicat-ed that he would begin fill to the position with an MP, in consultation with the largest parliamentary bloc or coalition of blocs, as part of a planned gradual transi-tion towards a “parliamentary government system”. The king said that the transition would require the development of national political parties and would like-ly take place over “several parliamentary cycles”.

OPPOSITION: The largest political party is the Islamic Action Front (IAF), which is aligned with the Muslim Brotherhood movement and represents the main organ-ised opposition. The IAF is not currently represented in parliament, having boycotted both the 2010 and 2013 elections. Other than the IAF there are no political par-ties with large-scale support. The majority of elected MPs are independents focused on local, rather than national, political and ideological issues. Local contests tend to be decided along tribal lines, a phenomenon that has led the king to call for the development of national political parties to help the country transition to a more parliamentary political system.

PROTESTS & THE ARAB SPRING: The wave of protests that began to sweep through much of the Arab world in early 2011 also reached Jordan, and Amman and a number of other cities have seen regular demonstra-tions since. However, protests in the kingdom have been on a much smaller scale than those witnessed in countries like Egypt and Tunisia. Only a few local protests have attracted more than several thousand demonstra-tors, and they have remained largely peaceful, despite some instances of rioting and of loyalist protestors attacking opposition demonstrations and IAF offices. Fuel price rises in November 2012 also saw rioting in the course of which one person died.

There have been two main forces behind demonstra-tions in the kingdom. The first is the IAF, which directs its focus on the electoral system. The party argues that electoral districts for parliament are drawn in a man-ner that gives rural areas that tend to be dominated by conservative East Bank tribes a disproportionate share of parliamentary seats. According to the IAF, this comes at the cost of urban areas, where the bulk of the pop-ulation of Palestinian origin and supporters of the IAF – categories that overlap to a large degree – are con-centrated. The second force behind the demonstrations consists primarily of young protestors from tribal areas that are traditionally supportive of the regime, known as the Hirak. They are concentrated in southern towns and rural areas and their grievances have been focused on economic concerns. Leftist groups have also played a role in protests, and there have been public allega-tions of high-level corruption. However, the divisions between the IAF and Hirak have weakened the oppo-sition movement, given the IAF’s call for electoral changes that would reduce the political influence of the areas from which the Hirak draws its strength.

In addition to protests, a major consequence of recent regional developments for Jordan has been the arrival of large numbers of Syrian refugees to the king-dom, which already hosts numerous Iraqi refugees in addition to the large number of Palestinian refugees and their descendants. As of early June 2013, there were nearly 390,000 registered Syrian refugees in Jordan, according to the UN High Commission for Refugees, as well as another 83,000 awaiting registration.

CONSTITUTIONAL CHANGE: In response to the Arab Spring uprisings and smaller local demonstrations, in April 2011 King Abdullah put in place a 10-person pan-el – comprising primarily senior legal figures and for-mer politicians – to propose constitutional changes. In August 2011 the committee put forward amendments to 42 articles, including the establishment of a consti-tutional court and an independent electoral adminis-tration and oversight body, previously under the remit of the Ministry of Interior. The amendments also placed limits on the king’s ability to indefinitely postpone elec-tions by requiring that they occur within four months of a parliament’s dissolution, as well as prohibiting tor-ture and instating measures to protect citizens’ rights to privacy and private communications. King Abdullah approved the changes in September 2011 in what amounted to the first large-scale revision of the constitution since its creation in 1952. An Independent Elec-tions Committee was established in December that year, followed by the Constitutional Court in June 2012.

MOVING FORWARD: Prior to January 2013, the most recent elections were those of November 2010. As with the 2013 ballot, the IAF boycotted the vote, which gave rise to a parliament dominated by conservative pro-regime MPs. Incumbent Prime Minister Samir Al Rifai initially remained in power following the elections but was replaced in February 2011 by Marouf Al Bakhit, a former major-general in the Jordanian military who had served as prime minister between 2005 and 2007 and as an ambassador to both Israel and Turkey.

Al Rifai came under fire for decisions taken by his pre-vious government, such as his authorisation of the construction of a casino on the Dead Sea, and he stood down in October 2011. His replacement was Awn Al Khasawneh, a former judge at the International Crim-inal Court who was widely regarded as a reformist with good ties with the IAF, with which he quickly moved to hold discussions. However, his efforts did not lead to any significant results, and Khasawneh resigned the fol-lowing April, having been caught between criticisms that he was not moving quickly enough on reform on the one hand, and opposition to change from within the political establishment on the other.

He was replaced by Fayaz Al Tarawneh, who had served as prime minister between 1998 and 1999 and had held positions as head of the royal court, as well as foreign minister and ambassador to the US. Al Tarawneh remained in place until October 2012 when he was replaced by Abdullah Ensour, a former deputy who has often voiced opposition to the government.

Jordanian businesspeople argue that the rapid turnover and replacement of prime ministers has slowed down the passage of reforms and made it harder to deal with the government, as it takes time for new min-isters to get to grips with their portfolios.

2013 ELECTIONS: The most recent parliamentary elec-tions took place on January 23, 2013. The official turnout for the election was 56.7%. The IAF boycotted the vote, arguing that despite changes to the electoral law it con-tinued to favour conservative tribal interests in rural areas at the expense of cities. As in previous elections, the vote gave rise to a parliament dominated by – most-ly conservative – independent MPs (as opposed to members of political parties), though several dozen leftist and Islamist candidates, primarily from the Cen-trist Islamic Party, also won seats.

On February 10, 2013, King Abdullah inaugurated the new parliament, praising the election in the prior month as a “milestone” of the reforms initiated two years earlier. In early March 2013, the new parliament sub-mitted to the royal court its nomination for the next prime minister, which was to become the country’s sixth in two years. Following a contentious deliberation process, the parliament decided upon Ensour, who had been serving up until that point as the caretaker prime minister, appointed in October 2012. In addition to his prior service in both the upper and lower houses of parliament, Ensour is an economist who is known for his vocal criticism of governmental affairs and austere economic policies, and is widely regarded as a liberal.

FOREIGN RELATIONS: Jordan has traditionally had close relations with Western countries, with which it was allied during the Cold War, as well as with neigh-bouring GCC states. The kingdom has long been an important regional ally of the US, though the relation-ship has been subject to periodic strains, such as dur-ing the 1991 and 2003 Gulf wars when Jordan declined to support the US. Nevertheless, relations have tend-ed to quickly recover, and the US declared Jordan a major non-NATO ally in 1996 and signed a free trade agreement (FTA) with the kingdom in 2000, which was fully implemented in 2010. Prior to full implementation, Jordanian goods produced in qualifying economic zones (QIZ), subject to certain provisions, received duty-free access to the US market. Other agreements in place with the US include a bilateral investment treaty, an open skies agreement and a memorandum of understand-ing for cooperation on nuclear energy. The kingdom also has strong military links with US, as it does with the UK.

Jordan also maintains good relations with the EU, which is its second-largest trade partner, and with which it signed an association agreement in 1997 that came into effect in 2002. The EU began a scoping exercise for a deep, comprehensive free trade area with Jordan and several other regional states in 2012, singling the kingdom out as one of the countries that has achieved the most progress towards closer ties under the EU’s European Neighbourhood Policy. Jordan also has FTAs in place with Turkey and Canada and is part of the Agadir Agreement, which came into effect in 2006, on free trade with Egypt, Tunisia and Morocco.

Relations with the GCC have historically been close, and Gulf states, particularly Saudi Arabia, have been important donors to the kingdom. Large numbers of Jordanians have also gone to GCC states to work. Rela-tions with Iraq have been more volatile, but the recent announcement of the construction of an oil pipeline from Iraq to Aqaba points to progress in bilateral rela-tions. Ties with Syria have also been variable and have worsened since the outbreak of conflict there in 2011, with King Abdullah becoming the first world leader to call on Syrian President Bashar Al Assad to step down.

Relations with Israel have moved from outright hos-tility to a peace of varying warmth. Jordan fought in two wars against its Jewish-majority neighbour, in 1948 and 1967, and also sent troops to Syria to fight against Israel in 1973. In the course of the 1967 war (known as the Six Day War), Israel took control of the West Bank, which Jordan had administered since 1949. However, the two states signed a peace treaty in 1994 as well as a bilateral trade agreement the following year, and Jor-dan has since often acted as an intermediary between Israel and the Palestinians.

Relations between Jordan and Israel are sometimes tense; for example, in September 2012 King Abdullah accused Israel of working to undermine Jordan’s efforts to launch a nuclear energy programme, a claim Israel has denied. Nevertheless, in May 2012 plans were announced for a joint Israeli-Jordanian industrial park on the border between the countries. In October 2012 King Abdullah appointed a new ambassador to Israel after the post had been left empty for two years. Jor-dan, Israel and the Palestinian Territories are also work-ing together on plans for a major project to transport water from the Red Sea to the Dead Sea.

OUTLOOK: The king has called for a transition to a political system in which parliament wields more pow-er, and heralded the inauguration of the new parlia-ment as a “milestone on the road to democracy”. Hopes for such a transition were bolstered by the fact that January’s elections were widely seen as well run and fair and that the parliament was consulted in forma-tion of the new government. However, any moves to seriously reform the political landscape will need to be handled with care, given internal divisions, such as those between the Jordanian and Palestinian-origin populations and opposition to reform from within state institutions. Progress is, therefore, likely to be slow and tentative, as illustrated by the fact that none of the mem-bers of the new Cabinet are elected representatives, despite the prime minister’s claim that he intends to include MPs in the near future. Critics will also contin-ue to call for changes to electoral districting that place Palestinian-dominated urban areas at a disadvantage.

In the absence of rapid reform, the extent to which the authorities can maintain political stability will depend in part on the economy, avoiding repeats of past situ-ations such as the unrest in response to certain sub-sidy cuts. Nevertheless, factors such as the instability in neighbouring countries, the divided nature of the opposition and the failure of protests to gain major momentum so far suggest a full-blown Arab Spring-style uprising remains unlikely in Jordan for the time being. The authorities are likely to continue to respond to popular discontent by replacing governments, which suggests that a high turnover of Cabinet figures is like-ly to remain a prominent feature of the political scene, leading to more disruption of business and other affairs.

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