Jordan: Critics denounce reforms ‘enlarging king’s authority’

A recent spate of constitutional amendments will give even more power to Jordan’s monarch at the expense of government, opponents say.

Jordan's King Abdullah speaks during the opening of the third ordinary session of 18th Parliament in Amman
Jordan's King Abdullah II speaks during a parliament session in the capital Amman in 2018 [File: Muhammad Hamed/Reuters]

Amman, Jordan – Legislators recently passed a slew of amendments that critics say further broaden King Abdullah II’s wide range of powers.

The 30 constitutional amendments flew through the lower and upper houses with ease earlier this month — the only memorable dispute a fistfight in the legislature that was spurred more by personal than parliamentary matters.

“They are playing with the constitution,” said Mahmoud al-Kharabsheh, who during his 20 years in parliament served multiple terms as head of the House Legal Committee.

Notable among the amendments is the creation of a National Security Council, which will include the prime minister, foreign and interior ministers, the heads of the kingdom’s security apparatuses, and others appointed by the king. It will convene in a “state of necessity” at the king’s invitation.

Prime Minister Bisher al-Khasawneh described the council as a “safety valve” to ensure “no partisan considerations affect the national issues”, Jordan’s state-run media quoted him as saying.

Current head of the Lower House Legal Committee and former House Speaker Abdul Monem Odat told Al Jazeera the council will facilitate coordination during matters of national security.

However, some analysts say the council creates a “fourth branch of government”.

“We’ve never had a constitution with such great power for His Majesty the King,” said Oraib Rantawi, director of the Amman-based Al Quds Center for Political Studies.

The recent amendments also add to Article 40, which expands the king’s “exclusive powers” to appoint and dismiss the chief justice, head of the Sharia Judicial Council, and other court officials.

This adds to King Abdullah’s already hefty pile of powers, on top of his ability to appoint the prime minister as well as heads of the lower house, upper house, constitutional court, army, and security departments.

“We have no problem with the king exercising wide powers because the constitution says he is the head of state. But you’re leaving nothing for the elected prime minister, the elected government,” said Raed Omari, a political analyst and veteran journalist.

‘New and critical phase’

The recent amendments came in tandem with the recommendations from the Royal Committee to Modernise the Political System (RCMPS) – a 92-member committee King Abdullah entrusted with developing political reforms to bring the kingdom into “a new and critical phase”.

The king formed the committee amid mounting unemployment and increasing discontent, and in the aftermath of his half-brother Prince Hamzah’s alleged coup plot.

The committee’s reforms call for greater participation of women and youth in political life and opening space for active political parties. They reserve 30 percent of parliament’s seats for political parties in the next election, with the goal to reach 60 percent in the coming years.

Currently, less than 10 percent of the seats in Jordan’s parliament are occupied by parties; the majority of MPs running based on tribal affiliation or family support.

The support for political parties is a “demand that was very much rejected in the past”, noted Rantawi.

The reforms allow for anyone prosecuted for their party membership to request compensation from the court – significant in Jordan, where party membership has long been under close scrutiny.

“This is totally new, we’ve not had such an approach when designing the political parties’ law over the last three decades,” said Rantawi.

“It is a step forward by the committee,” he said, but “a step backwards from the government”.

“Unfortunately, the government added two more constitutional amendments, which were not part of the package produced and passed by the committee,” said Dima Tahboub, a former member of Parliament, spokesperson for the Jordanian Islamic Action Front, and member of the RCMPS.

“These two enlarge the authority of the king,” Tahboub told Al Jazeera.

Since the political demands of the Arab Spring, there have been three notable periods of constitutional change in Jordan: 2011, 2016, and 2020, noted Omari. “With all these amendments together it’s like they changed 100 percent of the constitution,” he told Al Jazeera.

“They pledge they are modernising the country and we are on the way to a parliamentary government. This is what they say. But their actions prove otherwise. That’s the dilemma.”

‘Afraid of it?’

Odat said since 2011 the reforms have centred around the “rejuvenation of all parties”. He stressed the recent amendments do not grant new powers to the king, but rather make his existing powers explicit to ensure they are not compromised by any future partisan disputes or conflicts.

However, Tahboub said this is “starting with a notion of mistrust” towards a parliamentary government.

Former member of Parliament Kharabsheh added: “If we are going towards a parliamentary or party government and we are afraid of it, why are we going towards it?”

A recent study from the Center for Strategic Studies at the University of Jordan found parliament was the least trusted institution in Jordan.

While the amendments ran through parliament with little opinion from the broader public, what did attract attention was a brawl between two legislators during a discussion to add “Jordanian women” to the Constitution’s equal rights clause.

However, the fistfight had little to do with the actual content in the amendment, given a week later it passed effortlessly, with hardly any debate or discussion, noted Omari.

The three MPs involved in the brawl “never had any political experience, they were elected because they were rich.” said Omari. “For these MPs, discussing the constitution or the price of tomatoes is the same.”

‘Need to buy votes’

Ahmad al-Khawaldeh is a fifth-year student at the University of Jordan who helped organise voting during the 2020 elections for a candidate from his town of Mafraq, about 80km (44 miles) north of Amman.

“A lot of people end up in the wrong positions or are not suitable for their jobs because they got there through corruption,” he said.

“Corruption has become like a habit. Regardless if the person is good or not, you need to buy votes in order to win. Everyone would sell their votes, people would buy votes and so on… This happens a lot.”

A taxi driver in Amman, who asked to remain anonymous, expressed his opinion about the machinations of parliament. “They basically rob the country. They are thieves.”

Jordanian youth protest the arrest of 16 university students who were peacefully protesting the water-for-energy agreement between Jordan, Israel, and the UAE in November
Jordanians protest the arrest of 16 university students who were peacefully protesting a water-for-energy agreement between Jordan, Israel, and the UAE in November [Hanna Davis/Al Jazeera]

Khaled Qudah, a political commentator and journalist in Amman, noted Jordan’s election laws have not encouraged a politicised and active legislature, but rather reinforced electoral success based on tribal or familial connections and financial resources.

He referred to 1989, when the former King Hussein implemented a set of progressive reforms that led to a “lower house that was elected on the basis of a progressive, advanced, democratic election law”. However, since then the laws have increasingly silenced political parties and broadened executive powers.

Tahboub said often MPs’ votes are not responsive to their electorates, but rather the government services they receive.

“Whenever they vote for something, they think about it twice. They say, ‘Well if I did that, probably the government would not build a school in my area…’ This is the problem when you form a parliament that is mainly pro-government,” she said, adding from the election stage, “they try to minimise objection”.

“Most Jordanians don’t really know the goal, or the job of parliament, which is to represent the people and to change laws that need to be changed and to help boost the economy,” said al-Khawaldeh. “When we see something wrong with the government we don’t blame the MPs for it, we blame the government.”

With no effective system of representation, accompanied by unprecedented unemployment rates leaving many in Jordan frustrated, the blame becomes concentrated on a sole decision-maker.

“They are putting the king in every single detail,” said political analyst Amer al-Sabaleih. “In a society where things are not functioning, people are starting to blame the decision-makers, and in their minds who is the only decision-maker?”

A political test

The government has called for a revival of political parties for more than a decade, although there has been little progress and even a regression of political life.

“People here have never practiced democracy, they have never had full freedom,” said Omari.

The state has increasingly exercised “extrajudicial detention”, which enables authorities to detain anyone they deem a threat to public security — a tool commonly used to silence political activists. In 2018-19, these detentions totalled nearly 38,000 each year, according to statistics cited in a report by the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

Jordan has also tightened its “cybercrime law”, clamping down on citizens’ use of social media to oppose government policies. “I know many activists who are currently serving prison terms for what they expressed on social media,” Omari said.

As political activism and free speech have long been restricted in Jordan, “people have this notion that if you want to belong to an active political party, you should be willing to pay a price for your decision,” Tahboub added.

Implementing the committee’s recent reforms to allow for greater political activity “will be a test” for both the parties and the government, said Tahboub.

“Bring the best of laws but intervene in them, and you will have the worst of parliaments.”

Source: Al Jazeera