In April 2021, the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan was rocked by “royal intrigue.” King Abdullah II’s half-brother and former Crown Prince Hamzah was accused of plotting a coup against the king with foreign and local actors, among them Bassem Awadallah, a former minister and chief of the Royal Court. The State Security court later sentenced Awadallah and an accomplice to 15 years in prison, while Prince Hamzah was later put under house arrest.
With the gradual erosion of the social contract underpinning the legitimacy of Hashemite rule since Jordan’s turn to neoliberalism in the late 1980s, the scandal came at a time of increasing political disillusionment and apathy. The unemployment rate remains chronically high, particularly among the youth, while economic insecurity is often ranked as a pressing matter by respondents in polls.
To deal with this simmering, if not boiling, discontent, King Abdullah pulled a familiar trick from the playbook: political reform. In June 2021, a 92-member “Royal Committee to Modernize the Political System” was formed, tasked with putting forward “new draft election and political parties laws” which would promote “the active engagement of youth and women in public life,” and, within 10 years, bring forth parliaments dominated by strong parties with policy agendas which would form a government.
A year after the Prince Hamzah affair, on April 7 and 14, 2022, a new electoral law and political parties law were published in the Official Gazette. With Jordan on the cusp of a politically transformative decade—at least according to official discourse—scrutinizing the laws is necessary. What’s new in this latest round of political reform? Will the two new laws salvage the eroding social contract?
A new electoral law
Since the turn to a single non-transferable vote system in 1993, parliamentary elections in Jordan have been dominated by businessmen and tribal figures generally pliant with the regime and primarily concerned with providing services to their constituents. Opposition parties, such as the Muslim Brotherhood’s political wing, only managed to win negligible numbers of seats or boycotted elections altogether.
Despite the establishment of an Independent Election Commission in 2012 to guarantee the integrity of elections, and a shift to an open-list proportional representation system in 2015, voter turnout has declined. In the most recent elections held in November 2020, a little less than 30 percent of eligible voters cast their ballots.
Concomitantly, trust in parliament declined across the years. According to the Arab Barometer, 55 percent of Jordanians had some or great trust in parliament in 2006, while a meager 14 percent did so in 2018.
The new electoral law substantially changes the electoral system. For the next parliamentary elections, the kingdom will be divided into 18 electoral districts containing 97 out of the 138 seats, whereby candidates compete in an open list proportional representation system. Of the 97 seats, 18 will be allocated for women, seven for Christians and two for Chechens and Circassians.
But what of the remaining 41 seats in parliament? This is where the main novelty of the new electoral law comes in, as voters will cast their ballots in a national district in addition to their local district.
In the national district, political parties will participate in a closed list proportional representation system. In other words, 30 percent of the seats in parliament will be reserved for political parties. These party lists must have at least one woman for every three candidates. In a bid to encourage the political engagement of youth, the minimum age for a parliamentary candidate has been reduced from 30 to 25, and political parties’ lists must have at least one candidate aged below the age of 35 among the first five candidates. In addition, similar to the local districts, seats are reserved for Christians (at least two) and Chechens and Circassians (at least one) in the whole national district.
The law also stipulates that the number of seats allocated to the national district—and hence to political parties—will gradually increase in subsequent elections. Thus in 2024, 50 percent of the 138 seats will be allocated to the national district, while in 2028, the amount will rise to 65 percent.
While the new electoral law has been praised for bringing forth better representation and empowering women and youth, it has not been without criticism. In order to win seats in the local districts, lists must obtain over 7 percent of the total votes in the district. As for winning seats in the national district, parties’ lists must obtain over 2.5 percent of the total votes. These thresholds have been criticized by some, arguing that they marginalize small parties and candidates at the expense of large parties and candidates with vast financial resources.
But the relatively high threshold was maintained by the Royal Committee and parliament in the hopes that parties with similar ideologies would merge. Two moderate Islamist parties—one reportedly with tacit regime support—have already announced their merger.
New political parties law: Dawn of a new era, or indirect debilitation?
Political parties in Jordan, legalized only in 1992 after being banned in 1957, are generally weak and do not have mass followings. With the exception of the Muslim Brotherhood’s political wing, parties are small and ineffectual, while conservative and reactionary forces—particularly from the security apparatus—have successfully hindered any emerging opposition movement. In mid-2018, only 1 percent of Jordanians had any intention of joining a political party.
The legislative framework governing parties’ operations is one reason for their weakness. In 2007, a new law regulating political parties was passed, placing them under the purview of the Ministry of Interior which could determine whether to issue or reject licenses and intervene in parties’ internal affairs. The following year, the government issued regulations allocating 50,000 Jordanian dinars (over $70,000) per year to parties, which led to the emergence of numerous shell parties, greatly damaging the legitimacy of the kingdom’s political party system.
Despite a new political parties law and regulations on parties’ entitled financial support passed in 2012 and 2013 respectively to lessen the interior ministry’s control and the proliferation of shell parties, political parties’ appeal barely changed. In 2015, yet another political parties law was passed transferring oversight responsibilities to the Ministry of Political and Parliamentary Affairs, while new regulations on government-provided financial assistance to parties if they won parliamentary seats. In 2019, the regulations were changed altogether, with parties now receiving earmarked sums to be used for specific purposes rather than a lump-sum of $70,000.
The latest political parties law substantially differs from all the legislations since 2007. The authority over political parties has been transferred to the Independent Election Commission which ostensibly lessens government interference in parties. The commission is now responsible for approving parties’ licenses, following-up with them, and ensuring that they abide by the law and the constitution. Requests to establish a party cannot be rejected without any clear legal justification.
Although previous laws forbade discrimination against citizens due to their political beliefs and party membership, the new law explicitly makes it clear that they can have recourse to the courts and demand financial and moral compensations. In addition, the new law forbids any discrimination against students in universities and other institutions of higher learning on the basis of their political views or political party-related activities on campus. Parties can only be dissolved voluntarily by the members themselves, or via a judicial order should the party violate the constitution and the new political parties law.
However, critics have argued that the law debilitates, rather than empowers, parties as its stipulations apply retroactively to existing parties which now have a year to abide by them. In order to be formally established, parties must submit a request to the commission’s register, and within a year, hold an inaugural conference whereby the by-laws will be adopted and the party’s executive leadership elected. At the time of the conference, the party must have a minimum of 1,000 members from at least six governorates. Twenty percent of them must be women, and another 20 percent must be between the ages of 18 and 35. At least one person with disabilities must be among the founding members. Once every four years, parties must hold a general assembly. If they fail to abide by these stipulations, they are dissolved.
Despite their socially progressive nature, these stipulations have been harshly criticized. Leftists and nationalist parties have argued that the new law pushes parties to merge with one another as if no ideological differences existed between them, and that it will pave the way for traditional opposition parties to be overtaken by milquetoast new parties tacitly supported and encouraged by ruling elites.
New constitutional amendments: Socially progressive, but democratically regressive?
In late December 2021, a brawl broke out in parliament during a session discussing constitutional amendments, one of which would have strengthened gender equality. This irked conservative lawmakers who protested at making the constitution address citizens in both the masculine and feminine tense. Nonetheless, the next month, amendments to the constitution were published in the Official Gazette. While videos of the brawl understandably made the rounds on social media, what received less attention were the amendments themselves.
Several of the amendments fall in line with the king’s socially progressive vision. The feminine tense has been added in the title of the second chapter, persons with disabilities are now explicitly protected and encouraged to participate in public life, and the state is now constitutionally-bound to protect women from all forms of violence and discrimination and to encourage their participation in public life. Within its limits, the state must also support and empower youth to be active participants in socioeconomic and political life, while the minimum age of parliamentary candidates has been lowered from 30 to 25.
Both houses of parliament are now constitutionally-bound to discuss the Audit Bureau’s reports on violations and irregularities detected in public spending. In addition, limitations have been placed on parliamentarians and senators’ right to enter into a contract with the state through companies they own, either directly or indirectly.
Several of the king’s de facto prerogatives have been codified. Without needing to consult with the prime minister or the cabinet, he now has the sole authority to appoint the chief judge of the religious courts and the president of the council that administers them, as well as the Grand Mufti of the kingdom. In addition, the practice of the king appointing his advisers and the Chief of the Royal Court is now codified in the constitution. These new powers come on top of the other high-ranking positions in the state which the king already appoints—namely the prime minister and the cabinet, the Senate and its speaker, the president and members of the Constitutional Court, the head of the Judicial Council, and the heads of the army, General Intelligence Directorate and General Security.
But perhaps what generated the most controversy was the new Article 122 which establishes a National Security Council. Composed of the prime minister, the ministers of defense, foreign affairs and interior, the heads of the army, the General Intelligence Directorate and General Security, and two members appointed by the king, the council is responsible for security, defense, and foreign policy, and meets under the king’s invitation. Its decisions, once approved by the king, are considered final.
Critics worried that the council would be “a direct infraction on the executive and legislative branches,” as it was unclear how its decisions would be taken, whether its meetings would be transparent, and if it would be accountable to any entity. Despite the government’s reassurances, worries have proven to be warranted. The council’s regulations passed in April 2022 stipulate that its meetings and deliberations are to be kept secret, while there is no mention of any role for the legislative branch in the council.
Political reform to break the disillusionment?
In early January 2022, an article penned by a member of the Royal Committee appeared in the The Jordan Times, praising the constitutional amendments passed by parliament and the king’s “vision for a modern democratic Jordan that advances democracy, increases public participation in decision-making,” and ensures “the active participation of women and youth in public life.”
But to what extent was history “made,” as the article claims?
A representative poll conducted in November 2021, a month after the Royal Committee’s deliberations ended, revealed that only 26 percent had heard of the committee. Tellingly, 82 percent of respondents aged between 18 and 35—the age group so dear to the reform vision—had not heard of it. In addition, 43 percent had little or no trust in the committee, while 9 percent did not know or refused to answer.
The state of civil liberties in the kingdom continues to shrink, while the security apparatus continues to target activists and opposition figures, particularly activists of the hirak, none of whom were invited to be part of the Royal Committee. Even veteran journalists familiar with editorial red lines have been targeted under the cybercrime law, which has been used to harass and silence activists, journalists, and everyday citizens who express themselves on social media. In early April, an investigation revealed that governmental agencies likely used the Israeli-made Pegasus spyware to hack into the phones of human rights defenders.
As socioeconomic conditions continue to deteriorate, will the constitutional amendments and the new electoral and political parties laws break the deep disillusionment that characterizes politics in the kingdom and pave the way for parties to bring forth much-needed systemic changes in the political and socioeconomic status quo? Will parties manage to upend Jordan’s neoliberal trajectory and its crippling reliance on foreign aid? Is a more inclusive economy, with a sharp reduction in the deep socioeconomic inequalities that now characterize the kingdom, on the horizon?
Previous opportunities to bring about systemic socioeconomic and political reforms, most notably the 2005 National Agenda, have already been squandered. With the new electoral and political parties laws now a reality, a chance to bring about these changes appears to be on the horizon. Yet if history is an indicator, the picture is not too encouraging.
Karim Merhej is a former Nonresident Fellow at TIMEP, focusing on corruption, socioeconomic inequality, and governance in Lebanon and Jordan.