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Jordan's PM quits amid acrimony over reform efforts

Jordan's King Abdullah II has promised parliamentary elections by the end of the year and has grown frustrated that the legislature had failed to pass a new election law.

AMMAN // The Jordanian prime minister's resignation amid a power struggle between the government and the king came as the state's reform efforts were under fire from across the political spectrum.

Awn Khasawneh, 62, stepped down while the lower house of parliament continued to consider his government's draft law on electoral reform.

When he was appointed six months ago, Mr Khasawneh pledged to restore trust in the government after months of protests against rising living costs and stalled political reforms. He was given the job after King Abdullah II last year promised political reforms, including a shift from an appointed to an elected cabinet.

Mr Khasawneh stepped down to protest against the king's decision to extend the parliament's session by a month so that it could finish up work on the election law, according to reports in Jordanian newspapers.

The king has promised parliamentary elections by the end of the year and has grown frustrated with the amount of time it was taking for the legislature to pass the law, which would make changes to the voting system.

"We neither have the leisure of time nor the possibility of delinquency and postponement," the king wrote in a letter read on state television yesterday.

Jordanian opposition figures, including the Muslim Brotherhood, have denounced the law as falling far short of their demands, and Mr Khasawneh this month said there was room for improvement.

Hours after the king's letter was broadcast, more than 1,000 demonstrators, including Islamists, members of other political parties and youths, marched in Amman to protest against Mr Khasawneh's replacement, Fayez Tarawneh. Mr Tarawneh is a veteran politician known to be close to the king and served as premier more than a decade ago.

Analysts said there was a power struggle among the kingdom's rulers over how far reforms should go. There were also concerns over the strengthening position of Islamists in other countries like Egypt and Tunisia. It appeared Mr Khasawneh's resignation represents a victory for those seeking to curb the strength of the Muslim Brotherhood, Jordan's most organised opposition group, over those who favour bringing the Islamists further into the political process.

"I think it's reinforcing the status quo," Mohammed Al Masri, a researcher at the Center for Strategic Studies at the University of Jordan, said of the government's election law. "I'm pretty sure the one who drafted this law does not have a long-term vision. He doesn't see the deterioration in the Jordanian political landscape."

Zaki Bany Ershead, the head of the political bureau of the Islamic Action Front (IAF), the Brotherhood's political arm, said the proposed election law represented a "lack of a political desire to carry out real reform".

"This law would make political-party life very weak and would result in a weak parliament that can't express the great majority of the desires of the Jordanian people."

The draft law proposes scrapping the country's "one person, one vote" system that is seen to favour rural districts, where tribal candidates loyal to the monarchy live, over urban areas with large Palestinian populations. The law would give voters two choices for local districts, while reserving a third vote for proportional representation based on party lists.

While elections under the new law would mark the first time political parties have had the chance to field national lists, they would compete for only 15 out of 138 seats - with any one party limited to a maximum of just five. Opposition leaders had been calling for 50 per cent of the seats to go to national lists.

Critics contend the changes would be merely cosmetic and would fail to introduce substantive party politics to the lower house of parliament. The king appoints the upper house.

"The main point of concern was to limit the Muslim Brotherhood's role. It wasn't done to promote political-party participation," said Tareq Zuriekat, an activist and member of the National Front for Reform, a new political group.

The draft ignored many of the recommendations of a national committee set up last year to tackle the election law, seen as central to real political reform in a system with a strong executive body and weak parliament.

"It falls short of all expectations one year after the Arab uprisings," said Marwan Muasher, a former Jordanian foreign minister and deputy prime minister. "It does not point to seriousness when it comes to moving the country through a serious political reform process."

The state has been grappling with how much power to cede to under-represented urban areas, where Palestinians and Islamists are concentrated.

The current elected lower house of parliament largely consists of regime loyalists supported by tribal Jordanians.

The parliament voted this month to ban religious parties. Islamists in Jordan say the ban would not affect them, as the IAF counts Christians among its members and views itself as a societal movement rather than a religious party.

The group has shown itself to be pragmatic and, unlike in other Arab countries, has not called for regime change.

Islamist leaders have said an election boycott remains a possibility if the government does not listen to its demands. The IAF boycotted elections in 2010.

"We must include them in the system and the political process," said Hassan Barari, an associate professor of international relations at the University of Jordan and self-described secularist.



Updated: April 28, 2012 04:00 AM

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