- By Sean Yom
Jordan unveiled a package of constitutional amendments last Sunday which offered the most drastic overhaul of the 1952 constitution ever proposed. King Abdullah promised these revisions on June 12 in a surprising televised speech. The new push came in response to five months of increasingly strident protests and criticism, and seemed designed to emulate the constitutional reform gambit of Morocco’s King Mohammed VI.
Many Jordanians were stunned by the explicit promise in June of a future system that would draw governing cabinets from the elected parliament rather than appointment by palace fiat. The idea of constitutional monarchy, which entails divesting absolute royal power to the legislature alongside other sweeping institutional changes, captivated the political salons, business magazines, and civic debates of Amman through July. Many intellectuals compared the excitement in the air to 1989, when King Hussein began to end decades of authoritarian closure through unprecedented political reforms.
The revisions unveiled on Sunday made some serious changes, but fell far short of that promise of elected governments. Unlike in Morocco, there will be no popular referendum. The reforms do not curb the king’s core powers or move toward a constitutional monarchy in which he would reign but not rule. The election and parties law, unchecked security services, and rife corruption go untouched. Economic development outside Amman remains laggard. Will such a limited reform gambit be enough to blunt popular pressure on the embattled king?
The royal committee tasked with revising the constitution — a 10-person panel loaded with former prime ministers and legal luminaries — predictably did not ask the Hashemite dynasty to surrender its absolutist crown. The 42 amendments do recommend meaningful changes, such as establishing a constitutional court, ensuring independent oversight of elections, limiting the dreaded security courts, and reaffirming protections of expressive freedom. The reforms mostly ignore the monarchy’s lopsided executive supremacy that lies at the heart of Jordanian autocracy. Further, unlike Morocco’s recent example, the amendments will not face popular referendum.
Many Jordanians noted the subtle shift within official discourse from malakiyyah destouriyyah, or constitutional monarchy, to islah destouri, or constitutional reform — a maneuver that symbolized the unwillingness of the monarchy to distance itself from executive affairs. True, the king can no longer postpone elections indefinitely following parliamentary dissolution. Yet his imperative alone, rather than an elected majority, still determines the prime minister, and by extension a governing cabinet that will initiate laws and disburse the budget. Foreign relations remain under the purview of the palace, not parliament. Likewise, intact is the pervasive but shadowy role of the formidable mukhabarat, the General Intelligence Directorate, whom many critics accuse of infiltrating civil society, monitoring university students, and disproportionately influencing royal opinion — all while standing above legal reproach.
Reactions have been mixed. Marouf al-Bakhit’s Cabinet has loudly lauded these steps as historic, and Britain and France were among the first Western voices to applaud the move. In the middle ground stood many cautious optimists, who saw a tentative opening to a long-term reform program that will require sustained commitment, unlike the ill-fated 2005 National Agenda. Meanwhile, the Muslim Brotherhood’s Islamic Action Front and many liberal elites were unimpressed and demanded more concessions. The Brotherhood has already promised to organize more protest marches. Youth activists and bloggers have been most critical; their deep distrust of public officials stems from witnessing a decade’s worth of empty promises. Some grumble that an independent Palestine seems more likely than a democratic Jordan.
Nobody is under any illusions that these reforms are an entrée to real democratization. The amendments have all the hallmarks of controlled liberalization, giving just enough political leeway to blunt popular grumbling while preserving the monarchy’s authoritarian prerogative to dictate the terms of future policymaking. Yet what is more, too much talk of constitutionalism will mask other systemic issues that have fueled public frustration since last fall. If these are not also addressed, even successful promulgation of the amendments may fail to foreclose the kind of social tensions and urban violence that briefly exploded in late March and again this past July.
Critics of the revisions point to a number of similar more fundamental demands. Their first priority is improving the electoral and political parties laws, which produce conservative parliaments that consistently under represent the Palestinian majority and are dominated by service deputies and tribal figures. Last November’s elections for the Lower House were typical: real voter turnout was less than the official 53 percent, the contest suffered an Islamist boycott, and a complex virtual sub-districting method confused voters while eviscerating competition in many general districts. Public anger hastened the fall of the Samir al-Rifai’s cabinet months later; afterward, the king charged a 52-member National Dialogue Committee to review both laws. Their initial recommendations turned heads by advising the adoption of party-list proportional representation in place of the existing one-person, one-vote system.
Yet there are two catches, both of which could sabotage this initiative. First, only 15 percent of seats would be distributed at the national level. The rest would be allocated to the governorates, an absurd ratio given the key goal of encouraging unifying party movements rather than perpetuating fragmented voting predicated along tribal, kinship, and service-oriented lines. Second, such changes must be ratified by a current parliament whose members would not likely return under the new system. Many observers do not believe that the legislature will endorse these reforms. Such low confidence may account for the puzzling fact that more than 70 percent of Jordanians desire constitutional reform — but 40 percent disdain the idea that their legislature should take responsibility for creating competent governments.
Second, public anger persists around widespread corruption, which concerns not only the letter but the implementation of law. Few personalities ignite as much outrage as Khalid Shaheen, an imprisoned businessman who secured government permission to seek medical care abroad in late February. Though his subsequent flight triggered the resignation of two ministers, for many Shahin-Gate represented the ultimate failure of state accountability: one of the kingdom’s wealthiest businessmen had exploited his cobweb of political capital, including rumored connections with the queen, to escape punishment for massive bribery. Jordanian officials secured Shahin’s return from Germany this week, but perpetual stories of official corruption involving sordid deals between parliamentarians, ministers, and financiers continue to alienate the urban public, whether Palestinian or East Bank. Casino-Gate is another case in point, and involves alleged payoffs and legal violations committed by Prime Minister Bakhit’s first government in 2007 for a cancelled casino project on the Dead Sea. Though many Jordanians hold Bakhit responsible for the scandal — including, notably, many of his fellow tribal Jordanians — the sole result of a June parliamentary inquiry was the indictment of the Minister of Tourism. The Anti-Corruption Commission and other state agencies must make more progress in uncovering and prosecuting such cases, lest the remainder of their credibility fade — and by implication, drag the King’s image with it.
Third, a new protest movement is emerging in the southern towns of Jordan, far from the Amman spotlight and with very different demands. While the Western press has documented the weekly marches involving thousands of Islamists, leftist parties, and professional syndicates in the capital, a different kind of dissatisfaction has rumbled elsewhere in the country. From tribal towns like Tafileh and Karak to the 32 nationally designated "poverty pockets," Palestinians and East Bankers alike evince little patience for constitutional deliberation. Concrete reform in these communities means bread and jobs, but headlines of grotesque corruption — and new multi-billion dollar Star Trek amusement parks built to please wealthy tourists — painfully display their marginal status in the privatizing economy.
Unrest in tribal communities has far more resonance than within Amman given their historic affinity with the monarchy. Since February, the palace has blithely ignored weekly demonstrations in the capital, in which thousands have demanded the resignation of the Bakhit government, new parliamentary elections, and new anti-corruption measures. By contrast, a few weeks of small-scale protests in Tafileh provoked a royal visit in June, in which the king announced free health care for all residents, the recruitment of 1,000 locals for new police and security jobs, and the establishment of a new development fund. Regime efforts to mobilize the perennial resentments of Transjordanian nationalists against the Palestinians will have less traction when the heavily Transjordanian communities of the south are themselves in movement. Indeed, the underground campaign to portray all the opposition as "Palestinian" rather than Jordanian, an old tactic that exploits the most enduring cleavage in Jordanian society, has become increasingly hollow. The majority of the youth activists that organized the March 24 Shabab movement were not Palestinian, and many share strong ties with the very southern areas now chafing under the false promise of development.
Despite the Ministry of Planning’s inflated optimism, the economy simply cannot generate enough viable private-sector jobs, leaving 70 percent of the unemployed under the age of 30 — a problem especially prevalent in rural areas. Yet the regime cannot cover every future quandary with money, as price subsidies and public salaries consume most of the national budget. Indeed, it would have reported a record deficit this year had not Saudi Arabia transferred $1.4 billion in budgetary aid over the past two months. This may serve as prelude to future support if Jordan joins the Gulf Cooperation Council as announced in May, but aid is not oil — a lesson learned in the mid-1980s, when declining fiscal subsidies from the Gulf due to the global oil bust precipitated a disastrous economic downturn. That official talk of political change has lacked any accompanying national dialogue about sustainable development outside the metropole reflects stunning ignorance, but one that can be easily ameliorated.
Despite these problems, Jordan is far from a revolutionary crisis. Even the most ardent critics frame their goal as changing the system, not overturning the monarchy. Many still believe that the regime will pursue the right reforms; but their patience is wearing thin. Above all, those reforms will need to encompass far more than constitutional alterations. Executing the proposed amendments is important, but they alone will not make elections more competitive, political parties any stronger, corruption less rampant or rural development more equitable. The constitutional revisions need to be a starting point, not a final gambit, if the king hopes to move off the dangerous track on which Jordan has been running.
Sean L. Yom is an assistant professor of political science at Temple University.