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.