What political reforms can be expected from this parliamentary session?

On November 3rd, King Abdullah gave the speech from the Throne to open the current session of the Jordanian parliament. This speech opened what is the first ordinary session of parliament, as the session that was held following the elections was actually an extraordinary session.

His speech reiterated the government’s stated goal of providing for a gradual development of parliamentary government over a series of successive elections. In his speech he mentioned that the ideal type of parliamentary government would have not only a government but also an official opposition, both of which would be organized from parties that have defined platforms. He also called for the further development of political parties, partly by altering the way that parliamentary blocs operate, as under the current system MPs are free to switch parliamentary blocs whenever they choose to do so.

The Syrian refugee crisis was also mentioned in the speech from the throne, but it was on balance positive to see discussion of proposed reforms continuing even as that crisis continues. The King praised the armed forces in their role in handling the crisis, although Jordan has recently encountered criticism for allegedly deporting refugees seeking to enter from Syria. However, the Syria crisis, with its terrible humanitarian implications as well as the stress that it has placed on Jordan, seems likely to continue for the foreseeable future.

For this reason, it is good to see a focus on political reform – or even a continued mention of political reform – because this is a fundamental issue that cannot be overridden by a crisis forever. However, there are two issues that need to be mentioned. First – the regime has been discussing political reform for a long time, but reforms have not always gone forward. Indeed, the entire parliamentary process was suspended from 2001 to 2003, as it was prior to 1989. Before discussing why suspending political reform during a crisis is a bad long-term plan, it is important to note that these crises are not simply manufactured by the regime to justify delays in political reform. From 2001 to 2003 there were indeed challenges such as the second intifada and the beginning of the Iraq war, which led to a refugee exodus that continues to affect the demographics of Jordan today. The challenges then, as now, existed. It is also worth noting that Jordan is not alone in suspending parliamentary elections during times of crisis. Lebanon delayed its parliamentary elections this year amidst the conflict in Syria, in a decision that was understandable although not without controversy.

However, just because these challenges and crises occur does not mean that they merit suspending the political reform process. Passing legislation is a cumbersome and difficult process that requires many compromises, and implementing it is always a challenge as well. If the process itself is delayed by a crisis, then it will have to be restarted afterwards, and this means that further delays are inevitable. It is also possible that another crisis would occur, or the current one would continue. The point is that waiting to implement political reform at an ideal time may mean a lengthy wait for ideal circumstances that may never arise. There are actually a number of steps that could be taken now which could be implemented at the beginning of the next parliament, and if implemented would show that the regime’s pledges to implement reform have belatedly become more serious. These could include adding seats to underrepresented areas, as well as increasing the number of seats that are chosen by proportional representation.

Perhaps more challenging is the issue of parties – it is true that Jordan lacks coherent political parties in many cases, and it is also important to recognize that for a long time the regime had worked to discourage their development. A policy and an electoral system designed to be focused on distribution of largesse rather than on legislation is impossible to instantly overcome. Indeed, it could perhaps be argued that the development of political parties is something that cannot be legislated, it has to come from a change in behavior.

Political reform, if deeply embedded, will be able to survive a crisis of this type, and one of the end goals of any reform process is to ensure that the process itself need not be suspended during times of difficulty. This, fundamentally, is one of the challenges that Jordan faces during the current parliamentary session.

Could Jordan’s Courts Dissolve Parliament?

The events in Syria have attracted a substantial amount of attention, but it is also important not to overlook other issues as well, such as a recent court ruling in Jordan that could result in new elections being held. It could also continue a potentially troubling precedent of judicial decisions that have dissolved elected houses of the legislature in more than one country.

The Jordanian Constitutional Court has said that it is reviewing the electoral law under which the elections were held in January after a lower court ruled that the law was unconstitutional. When asked about the issue a Spokesman said only that there has not been a decision that would dissolve the lower house of parliament so far, but implicitly left open the possibility that the Constitutional Court could make such a decision in the future. The court is required to issue a decision on this challenge to the electoral law within the next 30 days.

If the Constitutional Court were to rule that parliament was elected incorrectly, the decision would be the first of its kind in Jordan since the elected parliament was restored in November 1989, despite numerous revisions to the electoral law since then. However, it would not be the first time that a judicial decision has dissolved parliament in an Arab country. In June 2012 the Egyptian Supreme Constitutional Court ruled that the lower house of the Egyptian parliament had been incorrectly elected and needed to be dissolved. The judges who issued that decision had been appointed under Mubarak, and the decision was seen by some as part of an effort to prevent Islamists from assuming power, but the actual result of the decision was rather different. What actually happened was that Mohamed Morsi won the July 2012 Presidential election held one month later and became President without a properly elected parliament (even one controlled by his party) to provide a check on his powers. Could this have led ultimately to the events which precipitated Morsi’s ouster? Perhaps, or perhaps not. But it is still important to recognize the fact that this decision and the lack of an elected parliament played a role in Morsi’s decision to try to take additional power for himself after he was elected.

Similar events have happened more than once in Kuwait as well, as a decision by their constitutional court ruled in 2012 that the parliament elected in February 2012 (and dominated by the opposition) was incorrected elected, and was thus dissolved. Then the Emir issued a decree changing the electoral law, and another election was held (and boycotted by the opposition) in December 2012, and the Constitutional Court overturned that election as well later on, which required yet another election this year.

Regardless of how one feels about the electoral law, giving the judiciary the authority to dissolve parliament with a court ruling is a poor precedent to set, and is probably not likely to provide the result that those challenging the electoral law have hoped for. It could even provide a way for the regime to dissolve a parliament that it was unhappy with in the future. It is true that the electoral system under which the elections were held in January was flawed, but it is also important to seek reform through means other than those which could have future unintended consequences.

Lower House Speaker Downplays Electoral Reform as Priority

Lower House Speaker Saad Hayel Srour downplayed the importance of electoral reform as a priority following comments by Prime Minister Ensour that the government was considering introducing an electoral reform law. According to Ammon News, on Sunday, Srour told parliament that because the next elections were more than three years away there was no urgency to move forward with electoral reform, and said other issues should be considered first.

Srour’s comments indicate two things – first, that the current parliament is expected to last the full four years, despite flaws in the electoral process used to elect it, and second, that electoral reform is likely to be shelved, at least for the time being. It is true that most of the attention is focused on other things such as the conflict in Syria, but it is important not to let this crisis, serious as it is, become an excuse by those who oppose implementing future reforms to delay them indefinitely.

Regardless of when it happens, the next round of electoral reform may be more politically contentious than previous ones. Not least is the fact that the areas that are likely to suffer in terms of their parliamentary representation are areas where unrest has recently occurred. Karak, for example, has 10 seats under the current electoral law when proportionally it should have 3, but this overrepresentation has not prevented it from being the site of protests and even violent incidents. Additionally, there is the question of how to encourage political party lists in the competition for the seats elected by proportional representation, as well as dialogue with groups that did not participate in the previous elections. These issues are best addressed sooner rather than later because they are likely to be contentious when the moment to consider electoral reform finally arrives.

Political Prospects for Kuwait’s Next Election

On Sunday, the Constitutional Court ruled in favor of the Emir’s decree that reduced the number of votes for each citizen from four to one. However, it also dissolved the National Assembly elected in December 2010 on a technicality, and because it ruled that a decree that the Emir, Sheikh Sabah Al-Ahmad Al-Sabah, issued setting up a National Election Commission violated Kuwait’s constitution. New elections to replace the dissolved parliament must be held by August under Article 107 of Kuwait’s constitution.

Although it dissolved the loyalist-dominated parliament elected in December, the regime’s officials seemed mostly pleased with the ruling. General Mahmoud Al-Dousari, Interior Ministry Undersecretary for Major Security Affairs said that protests following the ruling would not be permitted, even in Erada Square where they had previously been allowed, claiming that the ruling of the court was final and Kuwait’s citizens accepted it. The Chairman of the National Electoral Committee itself was supportive of the ruling, despite the fact that the court eliminated his job, and he noted that a new decree would need to be issued regarding municipal elections that were to be held on July 6th. The Emir gave a speech in support of the ruling and urged citizens to accept it.

The opposition’s reaction was mostly negative, although the National Democratic Alliance, an alliance of liberal opposition groups announced it would take part in the elections that must be held by August. Other opposition groups reiterated their intention to boycott the upcoming elections if they are held under the one-vote decree. Twenty-four former MPs met at the office of former National Assembly Speaker Ahmed Al-Saadoun, at which they criticized the decision and announced they would boycott the upcoming elections. However, the regime may be calculating that turnout will rise among liberals who decide to participate as well as tribes which vote after boycotting the previous election. Recently the Emir has made attempts to reach out to Kuwait’s tribes, which were a major source of support for the opposition. Prior to the ruling the leader of the Awazem tribe (Kuwait’s largest) spoke against opposition demands and urged Kuwait’s citizens to attend a dinner in honor of the Emir.

The regime appears to be seeking a scenario in which increased tribal participation would boost turnout, and discredit opposition leaders who boycotted the elections. It could then continue with its strategy of targeting individual supporters of the opposition for prosecution (for example, jailing Twitter users accused of insulting the Emir). It may then in the future hope to placate (and to some degree co-opt) opposition leaders to further enhance its arguments for legitimacy.

The problem is that while in the short term such tactics may well be successful, they also risk eroding the regime’s legitimacy even further. Without this legitimacy, there is a major risk of having the already pervasive economic arrangement (in which oil revenues are used to provide benefits and subsidized state employment to citizens) become even more critical for the regime to sustain itself in power, and even more difficult to change even though in the long term it almost certainly has to.

Budget Debate Shows Parliament’s Institutional Challenges

King Abdullah gave a speech on Sunday at the Mutah University Graduation. During this speech, one of the subjects that he discussed was domestic politics. He asserted that he wanted Jordan to develop an advanced parliamentary system, a goal which he said would take place over “successive parliamentary cycles.” Furthermore, he claimed that such a system would be “based on a parliamentary, partisan, and programme-based majority in tandem with a parliamentary minority that serves as constructive opposition and shadow government in the Lower House.” He says that he wants this to take place over several electoral cycles, but it is clear after the first few months of the new parliament that he was incorrect in his speech to criticize people who were skeptical about the success of recent political reforms.

But the way that Jordan’s parliament has handled the one of the most important recent political debates—the budget that just passed the lower house of parliament—shows that parliament has not conducted itself in a way indicative of progress. While the primary responsibility for this lack of progress is with the government, critics of its policies bear their share of responsibility as well.

During the debate, only 129 out of 150 MPs participated at the beginning and out of those 129, 37 of them withdrew. It must be noted that 47 MPs signed a memo that said that said the vote was rigged, and a few of them said that the Speaker, had rigged the vote. The leader of the Free Promise Bloc Amjad Majali tried to convince other MPs to withdraw. The end result was that the budget passed with 68 MPs voting in favor of it and 18 voting against it, which means that less than half of the lower house of parliament voted for Jordan’s temporary budget. The events during the debate have made few look good – the government was accused of heavy-handed tactics while its opponents on this vote mostly decided to accuse the Speaker of vote-rigging.

In an advanced parliamentary system this would not be what happened. The government, which would likely consist mostly of MPs, would propose the budget, and the opposition (or at least the largest opposition parties) would be organized into a shadow government (including a leader of the opposition) would potentially present a shadow budget, and the vote would be a key test of Ensour’s government, with the Prime Minister potentially having to resign if the vote was unsuccessful. The government and opposition would also consist of defined political groups or parties. As things stand now, the government engaged in what its opponents say was heavy-handed maneuvering to push it through while the opposition walked out. It is clear from this experience that the fundamental flaws in Jordan’s parliamentary system remain. Although there are steps to improve the system, King Abdullah has not been proactive enough in avoiding this crucial issues.

As Regime Cracks Down on the Press, Could Parliament Intervene?

A key element in a democratic system is that there are multiple centers of power, each of which is able under certain circumstances to limit the powers of the institutions. These institutional checks must be real, and must be immune to being overridden except in the most extreme of circumstances. In turn, those who are members of these institutions, such as parliament or the judiciary must exercise their duties responsibly to prevent both repression and obstructionism. In Jordan, recent events have given parliament a chance to demonstrate its institutional strength by exercising a check on the executive branch’s power. This opportunity comes as MPs have shown their objections to a new press law that has led the government to block numerous news websites, a list of which can be found here.

This is an opportunity for parliament as an institution to assert itself in a way that can move the reform process forward, but only if MPs take this opportunity. The government has indicated that it is amenable to a chance in the law, but this stance may be intended to stave off reform rather than to encourage it. Still, if the government is on record as supporting a change then it would be unlikely to oppose it should a change actually go through, because it would be politically almost impossible for it to change its position on this issue, which presents an opening that parliament can seize if it so desires.

The parliament needs to demonstrate its strength by reforming this press law in such a way that the government would find it politically impossible to object to it. It could start with several of the most problematic provisions – such as holding the owners of websites accountable for comments, and requiring comments to be about the same topic as the article, as well as eliminating requirements that news sites have a lead editor who is a member of the JPA. The bill would have to be passed in the Chamber of Deputies by a significant margin, which would make the Senate, and the regime, think twice about attempting to block it.

This is a crucial test for parliament as an institution – there have been clear objections raised to this press law, but and it is up for parliament to act to ensure that it fulfills its role of both legislating and acting as a body that can provide oversight against regime abuses. Only with parliament taking its proper role—with real power, not merely words describing how it has been reformed—can the political reform process move forward in a real way.

Could Ensour Lose the Confidence Vote?

The idea has been hinted at recently that the government faces an uphill battle winning the upcoming confidence vote in parliament, but it begs the question: what if Ensour cannot garner enough support to be able to survive a confidence vote? If he loses, whether it results in another Prime Minister being appointed or in an amended policy statement, the outcome will be partly due to factors beyond his control (such as the controversial proposal to reduce electricity price subsidies), but also due to his own seeming unwillingness to deal with parliament in terms that provide the lower house with adequate respect.

On Sundaym the Prime Minister presented his first policy statement to parliamen, and it is likely to receive a cold reception as parliament prepares for a vote of confidence in his government. Several political blocs have voiced their opposition to granting the government a vote of confidence, including the Watan bloc, the Democratic Gathering Bloc, and the Islamic Centrist Party. Particularly sensitive is the issue of electricity prices, with many MPs vowing to oppose the government in this vote unless it pledges that these prices will not be increased.

Ensour has also taken steps that can be seen as high-handed, that make it much less likely that he will receive the backing of MPs. Amer Al Sabaileh writes that reports indicate that ministers were notified of their appointment to the cabinet the day before it was announced. This was after it was already made public that the new cabinet would not include any MPs. This means that the MPs were excluded, were likely not adequately consulted, and the prospective candidates to head many of the ministries were not necessarily informed of their appointments beforehand. The reason for this approach is understandable – the parliament, as has been mentioned before is very fragmented. However, if MPs are ignored by the executive branch on questions such as this then they or their successors will continue to consider themselves to be part of an institution focused on distributing resources rather than passing of legislation and exercising oversight of the executive branch. There is another possibility that should be noted though – it is possible that Ensour excluded MPs in order to obtain their support by promising them appointments to the cabinet following the confidence vote.

If Ensour loses the confidence vote then it is likely that things will return to the drawing board with either an amended policy statement or another candidate for Prime Minister. The paradox that would arise if he loses the confidence vote is that parliament would be exercising its independence from the regime, but—if electricity prices are the main issue—would be doing so because MPs favor maintaining the policies that had been implemented by the regime for the last several decades. There is also another possibility of what might happen – that the regime, seeing that Ensour could lose, might call in the “backup units” – the intelligence agencies and the royal court – to ensure that he is able to survive the vote.

Whatever the scenario – whether Ensour loses, whether he is able to win backing from MPs by appointing some of them to the cabinet, or whether he is able to win through the support of the “backup units” the outcome is not a positive one for Jordan’s reform process.

Violence Spreads to Jordan’s Parliament

**Update** Here is a YouTube video with the footage of the fight from Telegraph TV.

Violence has spread to Jordan’s parliament. During a speech by Prime Minister Ensour defending his government’s fuel price increase last week, he was interrupted by MP Zaid Shawabkah from Madaba, who started yelling at him before his colleagues intervened and convinced him to calm down. Soon after, an altercation began.

Ensour continued his speech and argued that the government had no choice due to Jordan’s budgetary situation, when Shawabkah interrupted him again, standing up and accusing him of corruption. Deputy Speaker Khalil Atiyeh apologized to the Prime Minister on behalf of the house for any disrepectful behavior from its members, and Ensour, though angered, continued his speech.

Shawabkah started interrupting Ensour again, and MP Shadi Odwan – whom Jordan Times reported seemed to have a firearm, though he did not pull it out – to move towards him, and colleagues intervened to separate the two of them. As more MPs started to become involved the situation escalated, Atiyeh ended the session.

The participants in this altercation were not protesters who stormed parliament, they were MPs, elected officials. A key element of political reform is having institutions such as parliament where policies are debated, and where those who are upset with the government can both work within parliament and outside of it to gain political support to either change policies or win future elections. This incident shows that it takes more than just changing laws to change a political culture.

Jordan’s New Parliamentary Majority?

 

On Sunday, Jordan’s parliament will convene for the first time since the elections on January 23.  As it convenes, the post-election political landscape in Jordan is beginning to take shape, and it is interesting to see what will happen in the coming weeks and months.Currently, there are three blocs that are in negotiations to form a coalition that would control 70 out of 150 seats – the Homeland (Watan) Bloc led by Khalil Atiyeh (with 38 MPs) the Islamic Centrist Party (led by Mohammad al-Haj), with 16 MPs have already agreed to form a coalition, and they are negotiating with the Future Bloc to form a coalition that if agreed upon would have a total of 70 of the 150 seats in parliament.

Does this coalition represent a potential new governing alliance in Jordan over the long term? Does it’s potential formation mean that one of its members will be appointed by King Abdullah as the new Prime Minister?

Despite the size of this potential coalition, its leaders do not necessarily seem likely to become Prime Minister. Remember, King Abdullah has said that the next PM is not necessarily going to be an MP – what is different is that this time they would be subject to a vote of confidence in parliament. Rather, the real competition among MPs appears to be for the speakership, and several candidates for the position held a debate regarding how to strengthen the parliament.  One of the leaders of this potential coalition, Mohammad al-Haj, who is Secretary General of the Islamic Centrist Party is a candidate for the speakership, as are two former speakers, Saed Hayel Srour and Abdul Karim Dughmi, along with leftist Musfafa Shneikat and Mahmoud Kharabsheh. Kharabsheh served as head of the legal affairs committee when he investigated a bribe that was allegedly taken by the son of a former Prime Minister in 2000.

The candidates have different ideas about the proper role of the Speaker. Srour argued against the speaker being a member of any political bloc. If either Shneikat or al-Haj were elected it would signal that the other model – of a partisan spakership – might be taking hold. Perhaps much depends on King Abdullah’s choice of Prime Minister – if he chooses someone with ties to this coalition (though not necessarily a member – then the speakership becomes less important because of the coalition’s affiliation with the PM. If the PM is more of a nonpartisan or technocratic figure then the speakership becomes the highest-possible partisan position and a political bargaining chip in negotiations over future governments.

All eyes then, are on King Abdullah, and his decision on whom to appoint as Jordan’s next Prime Minister. Although the loyalists remain in power, there have been changes that were made beginning with this parliament, and his actions, as well as those of the MPs in electing their speaker will likely set precedents that will endure long into the future.

How Jordan’s Loyalists Stayed in Charge

Jordan held an election last Wednesday that was hailed by the regime as an important step on the path to reform. Turnout reached 56 percent despite boycotts by much of the opposition, including the Islamic Action Front and many reformists. People voted in the hope that this election with a modified electoral law would bring change. I held many of the same hopes myself, but it is clear that despite everything, for now the loyalists remain firmly in charge. How did this happen?

Political power is still centralized among a small clique of insiders with ties to the regime. The new Chief of the Royal Court is former Prime Minister Fayez Tarawneh, who was appointed as PM following the King’s dismissal of Awn Khasawneh. The new PM has not been announced yet, but it should be noted that the King has said he will consult with parliamentary blocs, and one of the largest blocs is the National Current Party, which is headed by former Speaker Abdul Hadi al-Majali, who a few years ago spoke against electoral reform, although he appears to have changed his position during the most recent election campaign. Still, if someone was on record opposing even the modest electoral reforms during the most recent parliament, then it is unlikely that they will be supportive of further reform in the future, except perhaps to the degree that they consider it to be a necessity.

How did this situation come about? Former Foreign Minister Marwan Muasher points out that even after the reform passed last year, the current electoral law remains inadequate and means parliament cannot exercise oversight of the executive branch. He addresses three issues in his article that are crucial to the reform process: (1) electoral reform, including a gradual increase in the number of seats allocated to party lists; (2) prosecuting and preventing corruption; and (3) economic reform, addressing the current economic crisis as well as unemployment, inequality, and Jordan’s continued dependence on outside aid.

Right now, it seems as though many loyalists have examined the results exactly the wrong way. 56 percent of registered voters did not turn out to vote because they wanted the way that Jordan is governed to remain the same. They did so, I think, in the hope that this time would be the start on the process of change. However, with many of those who opposed even modest reforms in a strong position, it is easy to be skeptical of whether the new parliament will produce meaningful reforms.