The recent Jordanian constitutional amendments that concentrate the King’s power further within the executive branch have brought to light several public grievances. Criticism against what is deemed as “unnecessary amendments” continues to escalate as the kingdom struggles to overcome economic and political challenges among rising public disillusionment. Jordanians, especially the youth who represent two thirds of the population, are losing their confidence in all political establishments, whether governmental, legislative, or judiciary. They are demanding speedy delivery on pledges to fix the economy and are showing no patience for elusive reform promises that can offer no immediate relief to the complicated economic situation.
The Controversial Amendments
The most controversial among the extensive set of amendments passed by the parliament is the one that allows the king to make significant appointments by royal decree without consulting the Council of Ministers. The Jordanian monarch can now appoint and dismiss the Chief Justice, head of the Sharia Judicial Council, Grand Mufti, Chief of the Royal Court, Minister of the Court, and the king’s advisors. Although, in practice, the king has always had the final say in all of these decisions, opposition groups see these new changes as an attempt at legalizing unconstitutional infringements. They fear that the “parliamentary monarchy”, stipulated by the 1952 constitution, is being overthrown.
Another amendment that provoked much criticism is the formation of the National Security Council, which will be headed by the King. The new council will hold wide-ranging political and security powers and will include the prime minister, army chief, directors of the security forces, foreign and interior ministers, as well as two other members that the king will appoint. A major concern regarding this amendment is that the council represents a direct infraction on the executive and legislative branches, which, according to article 45 of the constitution, are responsible for administering all internal and external affairs of the State apart from matters that are or may be entrusted by the present Constitution.
In response to the criticism, Prime Minister Bisher Khasawneh stated after the vote, that the amendments related to the King’s powers were “completely in line with the Constitution” and aimed to “distance these posts from partisan bickering to preserve their impartiality.” He added that ministers who will be appointed by royal decree will continue to be accountable to the parliament, and he indicated that the amendments would launch a new era in which governments are formed from parties with parliamentary majority.
This is the second time the constitution has had a major overhaul since 2016, when it was amended to give the monarch new powers, including the right to appoint the head of the army, judiciary, intelligence service, and gendarmerie without the need for the recommendation of the prime minister and the appropriate minister.
At the time, the stated legislative intent for the amendments was to protect these sensitive positions and enhance their independence. The amendments emulate the Moroccan model of government, whereby the political party with the highest representation in parliament selects the prime minister, was established. It is worth noting that the only elected government in Jordan's history was Suleiman Nabulsi’s government in 1957.
Economic Difficulties and Political Crisis
The amendments come amidst difficult economic conditions exacerbated by the Covid-19 pandemic. The country’s public debt shot up to 34.3 billion dinars (about $47 billion) and conservative estimates of unemployment rates point to an average of 25 percent of the population. Financial hardship became a blatant phenomenon in Jordan, when tens of thousands of Jordanians had to take out loans to cover their accumulating bills and were forced to flee the country to escape harsh imprisonment sentences incurred for debt delinquency – a situation that prompted the government to occasionally withhold these sentences to alleviate the debilitating effects of the financial crisis on poor households.1
The tense political environment also contributed to the less than favourable reception of the amendments. According to Freedom House Index, the status of freedom in Jordan declined from partly free to not free due to “harsh new restrictions on freedom of assembly, a crackdown on the teachers’ union following a series of strikes and protests, and other factors including a lack of adequate preparations that harmed the quality of parliamentary elections during the Covid-19 pandemic.”
Other factors like the cybercrime legislation and the increased numbers of activists and protestors arrested amplified the existing political frustration and sense of crisis. People were also resentful of the court’s decision to dissolve the country’s branch of the Muslim Brotherhood group, which has been licensed to operate in the Kingdom since its inception in 1945.2
A Gap in Confidence
It seems that Jordanians can no longer accept the regime’s promises of meaningful political reforms, which never come to fruition. In fact, their relationship with their government has changed drastically with the beginning of the millennia when the kingdom decided to depart from the long-adopted rentier economy and embrace a new economic model. The new model, however, relied on privatization and massive subsidy cuts on key commodities and staples, which had an adverse effect on the economic situation and allowed poverty, unemployment, and huge income deficits to prevail.
A poll conducted by the University of Jordan’s Centre for Strategic Studies (CSS) revealed that Jordanians have low trust in government institutions, judiciary system, and political parties. An unfortunate fact manifested in people’s sceptical response to all policy decisions made by the government, whether domestic or foreign.
Jordanian officials continue to claim that political reform is at the top of their priorities and that all they need is time to overcome the social and political challenges hindering it. The opposition, on the other hand, are concerned that the new amendments will debilitate reform efforts and force any democratically elected government to cede its power to the palace and relinquish sovereignty over internal and external affairs.
Historically, the dynamics of political reform in Jordan have depended on the strength of public pressure and the flexibility of the state’s response to this pressure. Following the nationwide demonstration of 1989 that protested the increase in fuel prices and the general economic deterioration, the government, led by the late King Hussein bin Talal, implemented a major political transformation where the state of Martial Law, which was imposed since 1957, was lifted and parliamentary life was resumed. However, this attitude quickly regressed and all hope for political reform was smothered by restraining laws and procedures that limited free speech and curbed parliament’s autonomy.
The growing public resentment at the government’s failure to implement successful political and economic reforms, was further aggravated by the amendments that offered no strategy for altering the stagnant political environment. There is no constitutional framework or a clear timeline that Jordanians can use to measure the effectiveness of the proposed political reform, nor are there indicators that the new changes will help people regain faith in their government and restore their lost appetite for political participation, which didn’t exceed 30 percent in the 2020 legislative elections.
In order to address Jordanians’ frustrations and the overall decline in citizen-state relations in Jordan, the government must take serious and immediate measures to overcome the socioeconomic hardships resulting from corruption and bureaucratic failure.
The government needs to reduce its dependence on direct and indirect taxes as a source of income, while optimizing the delivery of essential public services to the average Jordanian for whom the tax increase only results in reduced income with no benefit in terms of improved public services. There is also support for legal reform that eliminates legislations and practices that infringe on people’s right to freedom of expression, including extrajudicial detention and cybercrime laws.
Unless the constitutional amendments ensure the authority of a parliamentary government that can affect serious change, they will complicate matters more and delay any hope for democratic reform in Jordan.
Tareq Al Naimat is a Jordanian journalist. He is associate editor of Al Araby Al Jadeed Newspaper in London. Follow him on Twitter: @TareqAlnaimat
1 Government officials communicated to the author that the number of Jordanians in Egypt, Turkey and some other countries, has recently doubled because of the issue of debt delinquency.
2 The Court of Cassation issued a verdict ruling that the Muslim Brotherhood group is dissolved for failing to rectify its legal status under Jordanian law.