The new Jordanian election law that was drafted earlier this month is facing strong resentment from the political opposition and activists alike. Pro- democracy activists see it as yet another government assault on civil liberties thinly disguised as political reform.
The new law is set to allow the voters to cast three votes, two for their representatives in their districts while only 15 percent of the vote will go toward a national or party list as opposed to 50 percent as demanded by political groups, mainly the Islamic Action Front, the political arm of the Muslim Brotherhood organization. The new law would also increase the members of parliament to 138 from 120 and increase the quota for women from 12 to 15 seats.
Historically, the government has enacted a new law for every round of elections since in 1989 most of which emphasize de facto political segregation by dividing the country along Palestinian-Jordanian lines. Appalachian State University Political Science professor Curtis R. Ryan described Jordanian electoral laws in Foreign Policy article last April as “ bizarre” that often times” baffle” Jordanian voters because it is inherently undemocratic in nature.
While King Abdullah II is still popular within the Kingdom and faces no immediate threat to his throne, his response to the protests and demonstrations has yet to take a comprehensive and substantive form. The International Crisis Group characterized the King response to calls of reform in a report published last month by stating that “The king has shuffled cabinets and then shuffled them again, using prime ministers as buffers to absorb popular discontent. He has charged committees to explore possible re-forms, but these remain largely unimplemented.”
An Amman-based Western diplomat told the Economist in 2011 that “Jordan, prime ministers are there to be sacked.... They’re a buffer, a shock absorber — between the people and the king.”
Jordanian prime ministers in fact never last more than 15 months in office.
But this law falls short of the demands of reformists and protesters who also called for the return to the 1952 constitution that was established during the reign of King Abdullah’s grandfather, King Talal Bin Abdullah.
The appeal of the 1952 constitution to the protest movement in Jordan is due to the fact that it stipulated that the Jordanian citizens are the source of all powers in the country, and it empowers the elected parliament to reject laws proposed by the government. Moreover, it provides the Parliament with the power to even override the King’s decisions if he decided to veto legislation. But this requires two-thirds majority.
The original 1952 constitution which was amended a total of 29 times in 1954, 1958, 1960, 1973, 1974, 1976, 1984, is by the far the most liberal and arguably the most democratic constitution Jordan has ever had. This constitution also protects civil liberties and civil rights of all citizens. It bars, for example, any form of racial or religious discrimination, bans illegal arrest and seizure and requires the state to follow the due process of the law should they arrest or confiscate the property of anyone. The original 1952 constitution, most likely, was a reflection of King Talal’s liberal and democratic approach to governing.
As for the citizens who are of Palestinian origins, however, they see the new electoral law like many others before it, a deliberate government plan to keep their representation in parliament between only 10- 20 percent which they feel unfair given their demographic and economic representation in the Jordanian society.
For many East-Bank Jordanians, meanwhile, especially the tribal elites, they feel endangered of losing their traditional power base if full-blown democracy takes place where power might tilt toward the Palestinian-origin citizens or the Muslim Brotherhood.
For Amman-based attorney, Ayman al-Jazi, he regards that the current Parliament as useless and failing because its members (MPs) are “neglecting their duties as legislatures, acting instead as middle men peddling favors to their constituencies.” He also called for the effective establishment of the Constitutional Court and the return of the 1989 election law as the best law needed at this time.
He opposes, however, changing the makeup of the Parliament to reflect the size of the citizens of Palestinian origin. Instead, al-Jazi, whose grandfather was the Dean of Arab Parliamentarians while serving in the Jordanian parliament from 1928 to 1962, argues that Parliament should be all about the quality of its members regardless of its geopolitical identity. “There are no real differences between us and our brothers the Palestinians, the quality of the MPs are more important than their quantity,” he said.
MP Khalil Atieh, told me, however, that he opposes the use of segregationist language because of its dangerous consequences on the national unity. “We should not deal with the political issues on the basis of national origins, we are all Jordanian citizens of one country, and we should solve our problems according to this principle,” said Atieh.
He nevertheless, would like to see a fair representation of densely populated urban areas like the capital Amman and Zarqa which contain half of the population of the country and in the northern Jordan valley and alkoorah region.
For Atieh, who is one of only 17 members of Parliament of Palestinian origins out of total 120 or about 14 percent and one of most popular leaders in Jordan today, the real battle is how to reform the laws and improve the national economy for all citizens of Jordan regardless of their origins.
Emphasizing this point, moreover, was King Abdullah’s interview in the Washington Post in October of last year in which he stated that his first priority was to improve the economy. The King stated that “The Arab Spring didn’t start because of politics; it started because of economics — poverty and unemployment.... What keeps me up at night is not political reform because I am clear on where we are going. What keeps me up at night is the economic situation because if people are going to get back on the streets, it is because of economic challenges, not political.”
The king was right in his assessment. He was mainly speaking to the regime’s traditional backers the rural and tribal constituency who currently lead the public protests calling for an end to corruption and at times attacking the king and his family personally. This was a taboo-shattering development and ominous sign for the Hashemite dynasty.
In the northern cities of Ramtha and Mafraq where some of the heated protests took place, the discontent there can be traced, as the King rightly said, to the economic collapse of agriculture in those areas. The end the government agricultural subsidies induced more hardship and poverty in already marginalized regions. According to a 2009 World Bank study, the Mafraq governorate has the highest poverty rate in the Kingdom.
Moreover, according to 2011 economic performance index, Jordan unemployment rate is as high as 30%, not much better than Gaza’s 40 percent rate. The inflation rate, in addition, is about 6 percent which ranks Jordan 147 in the world, which is worst than Gaza’s inflation rate of 5 percent. Gaza ranked 115 in the world. More, 15 percent of the Jordanian population is under the poverty line, compared, for example, with Syria’s 11.9 percent or Tunisia which has the best Arab record of 3.8 percent.
In the restive cities of Kerak, Tafelieh, and Ma’an in the south, the privatization of government-owned industries likes mining and Potash, and lack of development projects in those regions led to the loss of jobs and increased poverty.
Illustrating the discontent with corruption and mismanagement of the economy, Jordanian poet and author Zaki Abu Hashish pointed to the arrest of former head of the General Intelligence Directorate Mohammad al Dhabi on charges of corruption and embezzlement as sign of how bad the situation in Jordan is. Abu Hashish who considers himself a King loyalist, nevertheless pointed to the economic decline in the country and rampant corruption in the political system as part of what went wrong in Jordan.
In the meantime, the regime response to these divergent interests and calls for democracy and reform has been slow and methodical yet manipulative.
The International Crisis Group stated in the aforementioned report that the regime is deliberately trying to divide the opposition along fault lines of Jordanians vs. Palestinians by pitting the two groups against each other and even promoting inter-tribal rivalries.
Vocal critic and political activist Mohamad Khalaf al-Hadid, agrees. He has been speaking out against the regime’s “reforms” throughout Amman area and had told me on several occasions that the regime is trying to “drive a wedge between Palestinians and Jordanians in order to maintain the culture of corruption that has robbed Jordan of its resources and sunk it in debt.”
Al-Hadid who hails from the powerful mid-region al-Hadid Bedouin tribe and whose late father had served as a General in Jordanian army, charges the King’s functionaries especially the Intelligence services “ the Mukhabarat” of sowing the seeds of “ corruption and destruction” in the country.
The head of the Mukhabarat is the second-most important job in the Kingdom after the King himself. This explains why the current Prime Minister, Awn Khasawneh, a respected and sensible jurist, seems to appear powerless in the face of the Mukhabarat’s incursions in public life.
Political writer Bassam Badareen has written extensively on the government’s attempts to fan the flames between Jordanians and Palestinians of Jordan. Badareen who is the Bureau Chief of London-based Al Quds Al Arabi newspaper addressed this issue in several articles he wrote about government systematic and unconstitutional revocation of the Jordanian citizenship from those of Palestinian origins. He also wrote about denying Palestinian doctors license to set up clinics because of their family roots were in Gaza, and because they lack Jordanian National ID Numbers, despite their multi-generational residency in the country.
Although the king does not seem to be averse to genuine democratic reform as he suggested late October of last year when he said that in 2012 it might be possible for the parliament to choose the prime minister.
He also suggested that he is not opposing to the direct popular election of the prime minister but that will take time given the weak political parties in Jordan. According to the Congressional Research Services, Jordan has extremely weak political infrastructure with 36 political parties that have the total of only 4100 members.
For King Abdullah II, in response to a question from the Washington Post last October as to whether he sees himself in the next five years relinquishing some power to the Parliament. “Probably sooner” the king answered.
He also added that “We haven’t shut any doors on relinquishing power. My mission is as quickly as possible to get Jordan to have a prime minister elected from a political party … We need to create new political parties based on programs.”
Such answers suggest that King Abdullah II is open to the idea of following in the same footsteps of his late grandfather, King Talal, or even taking more daring route by establishing himself as the first Arab king to issue an Arab Magna Carta.
(Ali Younes is a writer and Middle Eastern affairs analyst based in Washington D.C. He can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org and twitter @clearali)