The Middle East Channel

Jordan’s prime ministerial shuffle

Prime Minister Awn Shawkat al-Khasawneh shocked Jordan on Thursday by suddenly resigning. Jordanian prime ministers typically come and go at the discretion of the king. They are often the last to know of their fate, and passively accept their dismissals until the next time their services might be needed. Khasawneh violated political tradition by submitting ...

KHALIL MAZRAAWI/AFP/GettyImages
KHALIL MAZRAAWI/AFP/GettyImages

Prime Minister Awn Shawkat al-Khasawneh shocked Jordan on Thursday by suddenly resigning. Jordanian prime ministers typically come and go at the discretion of the king. They are often the last to know of their fate, and passively accept their dismissals until the next time their services might be needed. Khasawneh violated political tradition by submitting his resignation while abroad in Turkey, through one of his ministers, with a language devoid of the traditional praise and reverence. Jordanian monarchs are not accustomed to being curtly dismissed by their hand-chosen government officials.

The king’s discomfort with this perceived disrespect, and concern that it might become a rallying point for the opposition, was palpable. He responded with an aggrieved letter that blamed the premier for slowing down the process of reform. The palace hinted that Khasawneh was the obstacle to holding early parliamentary elections because he preferred postponing the elections to 2013. A massive media campaign denouncing the former prime minister has likely been inspired by the palace, which clearly hopes to prevent the opposition from exploiting Khasawneh’s resignation to blame the king for the absence of meaningful reform. It will now fall on the government of the conservative new Prime Minister Fayez Tarawnah to deliver on these reforms… or, more likely, to oversee their continuing failure.

The disagreement between the prime minister and the king had been an open secret among Jordan’s political circles and media for some time. The king’s defenders felt that Khasawneh was delaying the adoption of important laws, such as: one for a new independent body to oversee elections in a way that would ensure fairness and avoid the lapses that made a catastrophe of the previous elections and a consensual electoral law for conducting the elections to produce a more qualified and representative parliament with a better image, leading to a "parliamentary government" or quasi-parliamentary government that would emerge from the political powers of the parliament.

Khasawneh took office widely seen as a reformist and a liberal politician. He entered government sharply critical of how the country was being managed. He denounced the corruption, and expressed his intention to bring an end to the intervention of the intelligence department into public affairs. He defended the principle of the constitutional "guardianship of the state," and sticking to its mandate. He began a dialogue with the Muslim Brotherhood and the opposition, and introduced advanced positions, both intellectually and politically, to the public landscape.

But this impressive rhetoric did not reflect itself on the ground in a tangible way. Reformists felt very disappointed by the PM in the recent days, as he seemed unable to prevent the arrest of a number of political activists, and reports continued to appear exposing abuse and torture in prisons. These were seen as punitive behaviors conducted by various bodies in the state against the activists of the popular movement for what the officials consider an alarming crossing of the traditional red lines, as the protests’ slogans mounted up to include explicit and implicit criticism of the Jordanian monarch and his family.

The greatest disappointment was the new election law that the prime minister presented to parliament. The proposed law retains the states’ traditional method of designing laws under the pressure of traditional scarecrows, such as the conflict with the Muslim Brotherhood and dwarfing the opposition. Thus the draft was turned down immediately by the opposition parties, such as the Muslim Brotherhood, the National Front for Reform, dozens of institutions of civil society, and most of the political forces, all of whom saw it falling short of the least political ambitions, and not likely to fulfill the promise of a parliamentary government after elections. Many were shocked by the prime minister’s refusal to withdraw the law from parliament for amendment, in spite of the negative reactions it provoked. Instead, he seemed to be hoping that the controversy would drive the king to the parliament and call for new elections as soon as the law is approved.

Khasawneh’s resignation was sparked by the king’s decision to extend the current parliamentary session, made while he was on a visit to Turkey. The decision was meant to facilitate the rapid passage of the election law, leading to the dissolution of the parliament and early parliamentary elections. Khasawneh preferred to continue the regular session of parliament until its natural end, which would have delayed the elections until next year. He believed that the new independent commission to oversee voting would need a full year to be able to manage the elections, or at a minimum six months, to ensure that the electoral process would be clean. Perhaps his legal background predisposed him to focus on the UN’s standards for such commissions rather than the urgency of the political dynamic, to the dismay of many reformists hoping for speedier change.

What will happen now that Khasawneh has left the stage? Reformists were unpleasantly surprised by the selection of a conservative prime minister, Fayez Tarawneh, to succeed Khasawneh. But some justify this choice by saying that the new PM’s tenure will be very short, since his key mission will be the withdrawal of the election law and conducting speedy negotiations about it with the opposition, before sending it again to parliament for approval within a few months. After this, the PM will recommend dissolving the parliament and holding early parliamentary elections, which will require him, according to the new constitutional amendments, to submit his resignation. The second government will hold the elections and resign in turn to leave the stage for another government after the elections. Thus, we are likely to see two governments until the end of the year or the presumed date of the upcoming parliamentary elections.

Although the task seems clear, it still requires reaching an agreement with the opposition and the various political forces on the required law. This requires the PM to have a great deal of political power and flexibility in order to persuade the opposition to participate. He will have also to include in the deal package — for the first time — the nomination of the anticipated president of the independent commission that will run the next elections. The character of the president of the commission will be an important indicator of the credibility of the reform process.

This political confusion in Jordan is particularly dangerous given the mounting signs of a serious economic crisis. Jordanian ministers who were recently engaged in talks with the World Bank warn that this will be the toughest on the country since 1989, when the upheaval of the south erupted as a result of social protest against corruption and bad economic conditions. There has been growing dissent and unrest across Jordan’s south for the past year, with no signs of letting up. The 1989 events led to reviving the Jordanian democratic life and ended with holding the best elections in the history of the country. Will it take another explosion of popular anger like that of 1989 to convince the decision-making circles in Jordan that political reform is the only reliable guarantee for political stability?

Mohammad Abu Rumman is a political analyst at the University of Jordan’s Center for Strategic Studies.

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