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Jordan's King Abdullah urges new prime minister to step up reforms

Amendments of a controversial election law are likely in order to push the country further towards democracy.

The Jordanian MP Hamad Abouzeid, left, leaves the parliament building in Amman after the dissolution of parliament.
The Jordanian MP Hamad Abouzeid, left, leaves the parliament building in Amman after the dissolution of parliament.

AMMAN // Jordan's King Abdullah has urged the newly appointed prime minister, Samir Rifai, to step up political reforms and to put the economy on top of his agenda. But sceptics doubt that major political changes will take place. King Abdullah, who appointed Mr Rifai interim prime minister after dissolving parliament last week, told him on Wednesday that he is determined to continue the reform and modernisation process. The king asked Mr Rifai to amend a controversial election law and to hold general elections in the last quarter of next year in order to push the country further towards democracy.

Labib Kamhawi, an independent political analyst, said: "Perhaps the king realised that the political life in Jordan is dying, and the government's economic programme has failed - and that society is breaking up in favour of tribalism and felt that there is a need for serious change. "But the government has been talking about political development for the past 10 years and nothing has happened. That's because we do not have strong governments like the ones we had between the '50s and the early '70s. Reform cannot happen without a strong and freely elected parliament."

Last week, King Abdullah dissolved parliament halfway through its four-year term in a move reflecting his dissatisfaction with the legislative body. The elections were delayed to allow the government to endorse a decentralisation plan that will allow the country's 12 governorates to be represented by councils, so that parliamentarians could focus on their legislative jobs. The councils will act as legislative authorities with a mandate to implement development projects.

The dissolution of parliament is creating the impression that there is a window of opportunity. The government-owned Arai daily newspaper said yesterday that the appointment of Mr Rifai signals what it called a "new phase" in its editorial. Mr Rifai replaces the government of Nader Dahabi, whose popularity had been severely eroded, according to an opinion poll published last week. Mohammad Masri, a researcher at the Centre for Strategic studies at the University of Jordan, who conducted the poll, said Mr Dahabi's performance was declining and half of the respondents said the government was unable to shoulder its responsibilities. "Now there is a feeling that the political system is renewing itself in Jordan. The king is talking about holding integral, impartial and transparent elections. So this could lead to either serious changes or perhaps cosmetic changes."

In order for this to happen, Mr Masri said, political discourse has to convince citizens that serious changes are underway. "The electoral law should equally represent the different segments of Jordanian society. People want to feel that the system is fair." Mr Rifai, who served as chief of the Royal Court in 2003, is the scion of a political family. He is the seventh prime minister under King Abdullah's tenure. His grandfather, Samir, and his father, Zeid, were both prime ministers. His father currently heads the 55-seat appointed senate.

King Abdullah asked Mr Rifai not to rush into forming a new government. "Ministers should be chosen according to the criteria of competence, efficiency and commitment to the priorities of the next phase, the conditions confronting this phase and the practical plans for implementation," King Abdullah said in his letter of designation to Mr Rifai.

But the new government will face immense challenges. Jordan is grappling with a budget deficit that climbed to more than US$1.3 billion (Dh4.77bn) during the first 10 months of 2009. The former government on Tuesday endorsed a temporary budget with an expected deficit of nearly $1bn. "The new government will have its work cut out for it,in as far as the difficult situation of the economy is concerned," George Hawatmeh, a political analyst, said. "On its own, the government cannot do much. Where it has to concentrate its efforts is to admit that it has been hit hard by the international economic crisis, by knowing exactly where the kingdom took the blows and adjust to the new reality and ultimately look for and find external and economic support that would again help it stand on its feet."

Another challenge is to reach a consensus on an election law, said Nabil Gheisah, an editor and columnist at Arab El Yawm, an independent daily in Amman. "But this government is going to work in a comfortable environment because there is no watchdog after parliament was dissolved. But its efficiency hinges on the ministerial team, because the prime minister - although he comes from a political family - appears to lack the needed experience. Many Jordanians link him to his father, who is a conservative personality."

The country's Islamists criticised the appointment of Mr Rifai, saying that the country's institutions are becoming hereditary. Mohammad Zyoud, an Islamist in the Islamic Action Front, the political arm of the Muslim Brotherhood, said in a statement he is not happy with the new appointment because "he descends from a political family that has become a partner in the governing process and whose positions on democracy and freedoms are known".