The Jordanians continue to react to the appointment of former Prime Minister Samir Rifai by King Abdullah last week as head of a 92-member committee charged with modernizing the political system. The king asked Rifai to propose a new bill for elections and political parties; Examination of the necessary constitutional amendments related to these two laws and the mechanisms of parliamentary work; and recommendations to develop laws to regulate local government, increase participation in decision-making, and create a political and legislative environment conducive to active engagement by youth and women.
On social media, Jordanians shared between those who welcomed the move and those who expressed reservations. This was not the first time in 20 years that the king had set up a body or committee to deal with various aspects of political reform. Even before the king came to power, there were public calls to draft a new electoral law that deviates from the current unanimity system and its variations. Successive governments refused to abandon the unanimity system for fear that it would benefit the Islamist movement, particularly the Muslim Brotherhood, whose political arm, the Islamic Action Front, remains the largest and best organized political party in the kingdom.
Since 2002 there have been a number of committees appointed by the King, whose mandates include the submission of a comprehensive and all-encompassing national long-term work plan (the Royal Committee for the National Agenda 2005) as well as the commitment to political reform and the submission of a number of constitutional amendments ( the National Dialogue Committee 2011). Others looked at integrity and the fight against corruption in the public sector, justice development and the rule of law. In almost all of these committees, their recommendations have either been set aside and ignored or selected selectively. In the case of the Royal Committee for the National Agenda, which put forward a full plan for political reform, including drafting electoral and party laws, the results were completely ignored.
In all cases the impression arose that the so-called deep state had opposed the adoption of meaningful political reforms. Even after the king presented a series of so-called discussion papers between 2011 and 2017 in which he outlined his own vision for parliamentary governments, political parties and civil society, his vision was never adopted. From the perspective of reformists and activists, the political will for such reforms has never existed.
Skeptics believe the newly formed committee will suffer the same fate. Starting with his boss Rifai – whose own government was sacked after the 2011 public protests calling for political reform – critics say he can never be part of the solution as he represents the ruling elite that has always been the problem. They point out that the panel consists largely of centrists and moderates, as well as personalities known for their opposition to reform. Opposition symbols and “Hirakis” (young activists) have been omitted.
Then there is the mandate of the committee and whether its work will include amending a wide variety of laws that have affected public freedoms, freedom of expression, the media, gender equality and human rights, among others. Some even go so far as to ask the committee to revert to the 1952 Constitution, which restricted the monarch’s powers and entrusted the cabinet with public administration in all areas, while ensuring that all authority came from the people.
The King has assured the committee that his recommendations will be guaranteed by him and will be submitted directly to the House of Commons for approval. How this process will unfold remains to be seen. Jordan held general elections last November, governed by a controversial electoral law that favored wealthy tribal leaders and business people at the expense of political parties. This has been the case for decades, resulting in stamp assemblies with little or no oversight over the executive branch.
This time around, public pressure has increased and people are calling for real political reforms that root out corruption, nepotism and misuse of public resources. The coronavirus pandemic has exposed the fragility of a dysfunctional public sector. Jordan’s economy is stagnating while unemployment and poverty rates have reached record highs. The national debt is almost 100 percent of the gross domestic product and the budget deficit is almost a quarter of the total budget and is growing every year. With up to 80 percent of the budget for public sector salaries, little is left for investment and investment.
Critics say this is the last opportunity for the kingdom to enact real political reforms that are mirrored in the social, economic, health and education sectors that have suffered badly in recent years. But skeptics also believe that the 92-member committee will never agree on a uniform plan and that its chairman will ensure that only minimal reforms are achieved.
- Osama Al-Sharif is a journalist and political commentator based in Amman. Twitter: @ plato010
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