x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 18 January 2018

Jordan’s King Abdullah to press on with ‘white revolution’

Jordan’s king to proceed with wide-ranging package of reforms, amending elections laws that the opposition says favour pro-palace candidates, and overhauling a public sector widely seen as rife with corruption and nepotism.

Jordan's King Abdullah with his chief of staff Mashal Al Zaben (front right) during the opening of the November 3 session of parliament in Amman. Muhammad Hamed / Reuters
Jordan's King Abdullah with his chief of staff Mashal Al Zaben (front right) during the opening of the November 3 session of parliament in Amman. Muhammad Hamed / Reuters

AMMAN // Jordan’s King Abdullah II promised on Sunday to press ahead with a wide-ranging package of reforms, amending elections laws that the opposition says favour pro-palace candidates, and overhauling a public sector widely seen as rife with corruption and nepotism.

Addressing parliament, the king said his “white revolution” was part of home-grown reforms he initiated weeks before the onset of the Arab Spring that saw four of his peers deposed in uprisings. Media commentators said the “white” symbolises purity, honesty, and peaceful change rather than the kind of upheaval that has engulfed some of Jordan’s neighbors.

“Jordan is continuing its quest to develop a regional reform model that is home-grown and based on a clear roadmap with specific reform milestones,” King Abdullah said.

He said his public sector plan would restructure state agencies and advance the quality of education, health care and public transportation.

Meanwhile, he added, parliament should tackle laws governing election and political parties. The Muslim Brotherhood boycotted both elections this year to protest the laws. The opposition says they favour conservative tribal candidates who back the palace.

The next steps will be to build real political parties, the king said. He says he would like to see Jordan’s 23 small and fractured political parties coalesce into two coalitions based on ideology – right and left – for the next parliamentary election.

Currently, voters usually cast ballots on the basis of tribal affiliation and family connections. Although Jordan’s multiparty system was revived in 1991, following a 35-year ban prompted by a 1956 leftist coup attempt, opposition parties remain unable to chart clear programmes, claiming they are intimidated by tight scrutiny and security crackdowns.

Earlier this year, King Abdullah said his reforms would lead to the absolute monarchy taking a step back in running the daily affairs of the state. He said as parliament takes on more responsibility, future monarchs – maybe within five years – will have limited, though still significant responsibilities, mainly preserving their final word in foreign and defence policy.

Reform laws introduced in the past three years eased restrictions on the freedom of speech, opinion and assembly, but officials say it is still taking time to interpret or implement them.

Officials say Jordan is also making a push against corruption, with a powerful business tycoon and a former intelligence chief sentenced to jail in separate cases. Prosecutors are also investigating an additional 200 corruption cases involving serving and former officials.

King Abdullah said some delays in liberalisation stemmed from regional tensions, including the absence of a Palestinian-Israeli peace settlement and regional turbulences sparked by the Arab Spring, such as the civil war in neighbouring Syria.

He said an influx of nearly 600,000 Syrian refugees “depletes our already limited resources and puts enormous pressure on our infrastructure.”

He warned that if the international community “does not move quickly to help us shoulder the burdens of the Syrian crisis, I repeat and emphasise that Jordan is able to take measures to protect the interests of our people and country.” But he did not say if Jordan would close its border.

Jordan has complained of the shortfall of foreign donations to assist Syrian refugees, who are scattered in refugee camps and local communities across the country and now make up around 10 per cent of its 7 million people. The government says it spent $2 billion (Dh7.3 billion) in cash for the refugees’ upkeep last year.

On Thursday, Amnesty International urged world support to help Jordan and other countries hosting Syrian refugees end border restrictions on those fleeing the conflict.

More than 115,000 people have been killed and over 2.1 million forced to flee – mostly to Jordan, Lebanon, Turkey, Iraq and Egypt – since the Syrian conflict erupted after a crackdown on protests that began in March 2011 against President Bashar Al Assad.

Jordan depends on donations from the United States and Gulf states to keep its economy afloat. It is saddled by a multi-billion foreign debt, a record $2 billion budget deficit, high inflation and a rising energy bill.

* Associated Press