A New Cycle of Reform in Jordan

Jordan’s latest reform committee completed its work this month on modernizing the Jordanian political system. As with the many earlier reform committees and campaigns, many questions remain: is it real this time? Will these suggestions be implemented at all? And if so, will they have a significant impact on political life and governance in the Hashemite Kingdom? The Royal Committee to Modernize the Political System is the latest of several rounds of reform initiatives over the years.

The new committee submitted its report to King Abdullah II in early October 2021, but the public reaction was notably muted. While the committee was charged specifically with modernizing Jordan’s laws on political parties and elections, most Jordanians seem far more concerned about a depressed economy, high rates of unemployment, and staggeringly high living costs (especially in terms of food, fuel, and housing). Many are likely also a bit jaded by the sense of having seen this cycle of events before: crisis, national reform committee of elites, new reform proposals, limited implementation, repeat.

Is this the case this time? Perhaps it is too early to be sure. But while many reform advocates remain deeply skeptical, many others are not, including some members of the committee itself who had been deeply critical of previous reform efforts. The latest iteration, in short, sounded on the one hand like déjà vu—as the latest in a series of similar efforts—but on the other hand, the committee also included a large number of national figures from a variety of ideological perspectives, and included many serious reformers. That alone might give one pause before assuming the worst since reform in Jordan at times seemed like a regime coping mechanism rather than as the source of meaningful change.

Cycles of Reform in Jordan

As early as 1989, and following anti-IMF austerity riots and protests, the late King Hussein unveiled a national program for political and economic liberalization. That reform campaign included a commission that drafted the 1991 National Charter for Jordan, paving the way for the return of legal political parties (previously outlawed since 1957) and multiparty elections. It also set in motion a pattern that held across the next several decades of elections: a new electoral law and a new electoral system for almost every national parliamentary election. This, in turn, resulted in extensive political struggles over elections and representation, and sometimes less on actual policy and legislation. But parliament then, as now, was a weak institution, with power remaining heavily in the hands of the monarchy, not the legislature.

In 2005 the Royal Committee for the National Agenda, commissioned by King Abdullah II, unveiled plans for sweeping and ambitious reforms across Jordanian public life, but its recommendations were never implemented. After the eruption of the Arab uprisings across the region in 2011, the Hashemite monarchy responded to Jordan’s own version of the “Arab Spring” by reshuffling cabinets and prime ministers and forming a new National Dialogue Committee for Reform. The king also released a series of ““Discussion Papers” outlining a variety of reform initiatives, including the prospect of democratically elected parliamentary governments (rather than the norm of royally appointed prime ministers). Consequently, most Jordanians were neither shocked nor particularly moved by another committee and another set of reform proposals in 2021.

As noted above, on the domestic front, Jordan remained beset by severe strains on its economy, all made worse by the global COVID-19 pandemic. The kingdom was also rocked in the summer of 2021 by a shocking rift within the royal family itself, as key figures were accused (and later tried and convicted) of sedition while the king’s half-brother, Prince Hamzah bin Hussein, appeared to have been placed under house arrest, with his social media accounts going silent. This was followed in October 2021 by the Pandora Papers exposé, documenting lavish real estate holdings by the royal family from Malibu, California to London. The Jordanian media barely covered the topic, while international press on all the above issues seemed to put a negative spotlight on the kingdom. Jordanian journalists have complained for years about frequent government “gag orders” in response to countless controversial news stories, but fears of running afoul of the intelligence services have also led to a long-standing and unfortunate tendency in the Jordanian press of practicing its own self-censorship.

Modernizing Political Parties and Elections in Jordan

Jordan’s political modernization committee included 92 key figures from a variety of backgrounds, led by former Prime Minister Samir Rifai. It was charged with modernizing Jordan’s political system via changes in the laws for parties and elections. In addition to its previous practices of changing the electoral laws for almost every election, Jordan has also had a weak party system. Parties remain unpopular in Jordan; indeed, most Jordanians belong to no political party whatsoever and have for decades avoided them, even in elections. Parties were banned for decades in the kingdom and they remained relatively weak even after becoming legal again in 1991. The new reforms aim to build stronger programmatic political parties via a revised electoral system as well as by actively encouraging the return of vibrant political party life in the kingdom. As reform advocate and former committee member Oraib Rantawi has written, “The political party is not built through the political parties law … A political party is built through the elections law.”

The new reforms aim to build stronger programmatic political parties via a revised electoral system as well as by actively encouraging the return of vibrant political party life in the kingdom.

After years of struggles over Jordan’s various versions of single-vote electoral laws, the committee is recommending a two-tiered system, including votes for both district representatives and for national political parties. Jordan did briefly experiment with a similar idea in the 2013 elections, before shifting to a completely different type of electoral system. This time, the plan is to allow party-list voting for 30 percent of the members of parliament, with the proportion of party-list MPs to increase in each of the next several election cycles, eventually to result in the long-promised parliamentary-led governments. Multiple committee proposals include various mechanisms, including using positions on party lists, to increase representation for women and for youth.

The committee also recommended financial incentives to reward party successes so that party finances would increase based on electoral success, including in terms of electing women and youth as MPs. New political parties as well as already established ones are expected to have representatives from at least six governorates, with membership including at least 20 percent women, 20 percent youth, and one person with special needs. In order to engage more youth, the committee has also called for lowering the age for parliamentary office from 30 to 25. Lena Aloul, a member of the modernization committee, writes that “the new law also safeguards the party’s legal rights by protecting its headquarters, documents, correspondence and means of communication from raids, seizures, or surveillance.” It also prohibits any measures against party activities on university campuses and is designed to protect students against any discrimination based on their political views or activities.

For many activists, getting the security and intelligence services out of day-to-day political life may be even more important than making changes in the parties and election laws.

Jordan’s Muslim Brotherhood, split now into both licensed and un-licensed versions, has complained in recent years of government raids and seizures of its offices. Other parties and party activists have long criticized excessive interference by Jordan’s General Intelligence Directorate, or Mukhabarat, in parties and elections, and hence have demanded that the intelligence services refrain from playing any role in party and electoral life in the kingdom. Indeed, for many activists, getting the security and intelligence services out of day-to-day political life may be even more important than making changes in the parties and election laws.

Where to from Here?

Reformists on the committee argue that some reform is better than none and that the 10-year plan for reaching the goal of elected parliamentary governments is a sign of gradual progress, while critics see it as procrastination. Put another way: some see the wheels moving forward while others see them simply spinning without forward progress. As one Jordanian analyst suggested to the author:

I think we have seen both the modernization committee and new cabinet shuffle being received by the public with a shrug and a sense of resignation … The basic issues of unemployment and poverty keep rising and the announcement that it will take 10 years to form parties was also perceived as there is no real will to reform from the top ….

Another Jordanian observer shared this bleak outlook, noting that:

… the protest movement is weak and failed to evolve into a critical mass. Activists have been arrested. The tribes are also weak and divided. Government critics were coopted and were given government jobs … There is a trust gap that is difficult to mend ….

Similarly, one activist argued that “the committee is a reincarnation of earlier stunts, basically designed to deflate and absorb politics in Jordan.” But some reform advocates remain more optimistic. A member of the committee, for example, argued that the recommendations go farther than any prior versions, and represent “a good step forward” for “a mixed system” in Jordan. Veteran journalist Daoud Kuttab has written that “the fact that the royal commission has given this process ten years and has provided a detailed roadmap to get there shows that this is not merely wishful thinking, but that it has the seriousness of a new strategy.” If fully implemented, he notes, the proposed reform measures might even lead to a constitutional monarchy. Still, critics remain skeptical regarding the motivations and purpose of the latest reform proposals.

King Abdullah himself, on many occasions, has called for programmatic and national-level political parties, with smaller parties eventually coalescing around three or four left, right, and center parties. The new proposed law seems designed to achieve this. But that, in turn, has some current activists worried. One activist put it to the author this way:

The basic outcome might be … manufacturing, presenting and pushing forward a new, young political elite loyal to the regime, something that has been lacking in the past years; and creating a “consensus” around a new political parties law which will aim at creating 3-5 program-oriented, “large” parties, thus eliminating, once and for all, the ideological political parties, and the end result: eliminating any possibility of organization for the opposition … and therefore, the end of radical politics.

Even if the election and political party reforms are successfully implemented, there remain a host of other pressing issues. Among these is the overall imbalance of power in governance, as parliament plays a very limited role in actual policy-making and governing—with or without better electoral and party laws. The latter two are essential for real reform, many activists note, but so is empowering parliament and parliamentary governments.

This is not lost on the modernization committee, however, as many key members are themselves arguing for more expansive reforms on other topics. For example, Oraib Rantawi, quoted earlier, argues that the regime also has multiple ways to reassure a skeptical public. These might include confidence-building measures such as releasing detainees, restoring the disbanded teachers’ union, and ceasing attacks on individuals and their freedom of speech, expression, and assembly.

While party and election reforms are needed, most Jordanians would be more likely to cite the economy, the cost of living, perceived public corruption, and personal freedoms as the most pressing issues affecting their daily lives.

While party and election reforms are needed, most Jordanians would be more likely to cite the economy, the cost of living, perceived public corruption, and personal freedoms as the most pressing issues affecting their daily lives. These, too, can and must be part of a broader reform agenda for changes to be seen as real and impactful for Jordanians of all walks of life. Otherwise, most Jordanians are likely to remain skeptical of reform efforts, seeing them not as meaningful change but as more of the same. The wheels are spinning, but Jordanians want to make sure that they are moving forward, too. The modernization committee did its job as requested; it is now up to the state to implement these reforms and more.