Jordanians continue to react to last week’s appointment by King Abdullah of former Prime Minister Samir Rifai as the head of a 92-member committee tasked with modernizing the political system. The king asked Rifai to put forward new draft election and political parties laws; look into the required constitutional amendments connected to these two laws and the mechanisms of parliamentary work; and provide recommendations on developing legislation regulating local administration, expanding participation in decision-making, and creating a political and legislative environment conducive to the active engagement of youths and women.
On social media, Jordanians were divided between those who welcomed the move and those who expressed reservations. This was not the first time in the last 20 years that the king had formed a panel or committee to deal with various aspects of political reform. Even before the king took over, there were public calls to draft a new election law that would depart from the present single-vote system and its variations. Successive governments resisted abandoning the single-vote 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 most organized political party in the kingdom.
Since 2002, there have been a number of royal-appointed committees whose mandates have included presenting a comprehensive and all-encompassing national long-term work plan (the 2005 Royal Committee for the National Agenda), and engaging in political reforms and presenting a number of constitutional amendments (the 2011 National Dialogue Committee). There were others that looked into integrity and anti-corruption in the public sector, judicial development and the rule of law. For almost all of these committees, their recommendations were either set aside and ignored or selectively chosen. In the case of the Royal Committee for the National Agenda, which presented a complete plan for political reform, including draft election and political parties laws, the results were totally ignored.
In all cases, there was an impression that the so-called deep state had resisted the adoption of meaningful political reforms. Even after the king presented a series of so-called discussion papers between 2011 and 2017, outlining his own vision for parliamentary governments, political parties and civil society, his vision was never adopted. In the view of reformists and activists, the political will to launch such reforms has never existed.
Skeptics believe the same fate will befall the newly formed committee. Starting with its head, Rifai — whose own government was sacked following the public protests of 2011 that called for political reforms — critics say that he can never be part of the solution as he represents the ruling elite that have always been the problem. They point to the fact that the committee is largely composed of centrists and moderates, as well as figures known for their resistance to reform. Symbols of the opposition and “hirakis” (young activists) have been left out.
And then there is the mandate of the committee and whether its work will extend to amending a wide range of laws that have impacted public liberties, freedom of expression, the media, gender equality, and human rights, among others. Some go as far as calling on the committee to revert back to the 1952 constitution, which limited the powers of the monarch and entrusted the Cabinet with public governance in all areas, while ensuring that all authority extended from the people.
The king has assured the committee that its recommendations will be guaranteed by him and will go directly to the lower house of parliament for approval. How that process will work remains to be seen. Jordan held legislative elections last November under a controversial election law that favored wealthy tribal heads and businessmen at the expense of political parties. This has been the case for decades, resulting in rubber-stamp assemblies that have had little or no oversight over the executive.
This time, public pressure has increased, with people demanding genuine political reforms that will stamp out corruption, nepotism and the abuse of public resources. The coronavirus pandemic has exposed the fragility of a dysfunctional public sector. Jordan’s economy is stalling, while unemployment and poverty rates have reached record levels. The national debt is almost 100 percent of gross domestic product and the budget deficit is almost a quarter of the entire budget and growing each year. With up to 80 percent of the budget going on public sector salaries, little is left for capital expenditure and investments.
Critics say this is the last opportunity for the kingdom to adopt genuine political reforms that will reflect in the social, economic, health and education sectors that have suffered badly over the past few years. But skeptics also believe that the 92-member committee will never agree on a unified plan and that its chairman will make sure that only minimal reforms are achieved.
- Osama Al-Sharif is a journalist and political commentator based in Amman. Twitter: @plato010
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