x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 22 January 2018

Jordan's reformers met with scepticism

Jordan's newly reshuffled government has put political reform at the top of its agenda, but the opposition remains sceptical.

AMMAN // Jordan's newly reshuffled government has put political reform at the top of its agenda, but pro-reform journalists, civic institutions and elements of the Islamist-led opposition remain sceptical about attempts to bolster political development. The reform initiative, announced on Feb 24, a day after the reshuffle, is being closely observed by many in Jordan and abroad who have been watching freedoms see-saw since the kingdom returned to democracy in 1989.

Some analysts claim the move is closely linked to a desire to pre-empt a move by the new US president, Barack Obama, to tie foreign aid more closely to democratisation. King Abdullah said improving economic performance was a priority, but could not be done without political reform. "Reform and political development is our enterprise and democracy is our option," he told a cabinet meeting on Sunday.

Nader Dahabi, the prime minister, is hoping to advance political development by opening a dialogue with political and civilian groups, and revisiting laws that govern political life in Jordan, including a controversial election law. Critics say the law, adopted in 1993, has filled parliament with pro-monarchy, pro-tribal legislators. "The government is seriously considering reforms, but it is not clear how far it will go," said Bassam Haddadin, an independent member of parliament. "Internally the situation has become ripe for reform.

The internal political process is fragile and does not allow for the development of the country." The calls for reform come at a time of regional uncertainty: the political appeal of the Islamists, chaos in Iraq, Iran's growing regional influence and a right-wing Israeli government that is being formed by the Likud leader, Benjamin Netanyahu. The continuing political rivalry between Hamas and Fatah in the Palestinian territories has also dashed any serious hope of a two-state solution, a plan backed by the new US administration, Arab states and the international community.

To show it is serious about reform, the government appointed Musa Maaitah, a left-leaning politician from the opposition camp, as minister of political development. "The government will strengthen political openness in the next stage and will start a dialogue with different political parties and civil societies to enact laws and legislation that deepen democracy and reforms," Mr Maaitah told the state-run Petra news agency last month.

"All the laws that govern political life, including the election law, will be on the table of dialogue ? to regulate political life in partnership with parliament." Mr Maaitah himself is a victim of the government's political parties law, which became effective last year. He had to dissolve his party, the Left Democratic Party, because it was unable to meet the strict requirements of the law, which included raising the number of founding members to 500 from 50. Political parties have for years felt disadvantaged by the one man, one vote system, which in 1993 replaced the system whereby voters were entitled to as many votes as the parliamentary seats allocated for their district.

Amendments to the law in 2001 retained the unpopular voting formula. The law as it stands is believed to favour tribal affiliation at the expense of political considerations and undermines the representation of areas heavily populated by Jordanians of Palestinian origin in a country where they make up 50 per cent of the population. In Jordan, a largely tribal country, people tend to vote for members of their tribe, rather than for political considerations.

Despite all the talk about reform, analysts are sceptical that the government is serious or that it has the ability to implement them. "Talk about reform is only a cliché. It is bigger than the government ? at the same time the pro-democratic forces are weak and scattered," Mohammad Momani, a professor of political science at Yarmouk University, said. In Nov 2005, the then-prime minister, Marouf Bakhit, appointed an opposition leader, Mohammad Ouran, as a minister of political development to try to spearhead political reform. But he was unable to persuade the prime minister to change the election law.

"The government has talked about reforms before but nothing materialised, in particular with the election law," said Fahed Kheitan, a columnist and editor with Arab Alyawm, an independent daily newspaper. "Maaitah is serious about reform, but there are some in the decision-making circles who are not." Kheitan said the prime minister was expecting the US administration to focus on public freedoms and democracy and tie economic aid with reforms.

"The government is seeking to adopt political reforms as a pre-emptive step ahead of any external pressure," he said. "However, the prime minister's plans for political reform are still in the first phase and they are just general ideas that have not materialised into a programme ? political parties are sceptical based on the government's past experiences. "These governments have raised the slogan of political reform and have reneged on their promises."

A major reform document in 2005 called The National Agenda, which was seen as the blueprint of political reform, was put on the back-burner. The old guard fought against it and parliament claimed that it was nothing but an effort to please the West. "I don't see any seriousness from the leadership of this country to debate the entire body of legislation that restricts reform," said Mustafa Hamarneh, a political analyst and the chairman of Al Sijill weekly. "There has to be push from up above."

At the same time, Hamarneh said that civil groups had failed to gain a critical mass to push for reform. "There are scattered efforts here and there. There is apathy." Before Mr Maaitah became minister of political development, he worked over the past few months with an eight-member committee that included Hamarneh and a former minister, on a comprehensive plan that would push for reform by amending several laws with the election law as its cornerstone.

The proposal has been sent to the prime minister for his consideration. But Hamarneh said he is not optimistic about the amendments happening anytime soon after Abdul Hadi Majali, the lower house speaker, said the election law will be linked to a decentralisation plan, which is not expected to be developed until next year. smaayeh@thenational.ae