Ghaith Al Amaireh reviews the debates around recent amendments to Jordan’s Constitution. He argues that they point towards a wider plan for political reform, although the significant role of the King means Jordanian democracy will continue be distinct from Western models.
Last summer, the Jordanian Parliament promulgated two constitutional amendments. Both were approved by an overwhelming majority. The first amendment expanded the jurisdiction of the Independent Election Commission (IEC) to administer municipal elections and any other elections assigned by the government, in addition to parliamentary elections. The second gave the King the power to appoint, dismiss and accept the resignation of the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and the Director of the General Intelligence Department (GID).
The vast majority of the public welcomed the expansion of the IEC’s mandate. The general feeling was that increasing the scope of the IEC’s power would increase its credibility and reduce the possibility of electoral manipulation or fraud. There is also hope that the expansion of the IEC’s power to local-level (Municipal) elections will facilitate wider decentralisation as the government has promised to improve the delivery of government services and community development by gradually transferring these responsibilities with the regional and local councils. Giving the IEC oversight over elections held at municipal level will ensure the utmost levels of transparency, integrity and fairness of the selection of these increasingly important public officials.
It is, however, important to mention that without the proper funds, human resources and appropriate facilities and equipment the IEC will not be able to handle that new mandate. The state should be fully aware of this and take steps to provide the means to guarantee the desired outcomes.
The second amendment reads ‘[d]espite the wording of Article 40 of the constitution, the King appoints the chairman of the army’s Joint Chiefs of Staff and the director of the GID and ends their services and accepts their resignations’ (Article 127). Advocates for the amendment make two arguments for its necessity: the nature of Jordan’s political system, with its tribal backgrounds, strong family ties and weak unorganised political parties; and regional instability. Given these circumstances many Jordanians see the link between the King, an experienced officer himself, and the armed forces as a significant stabilising factor.
The aim of the amendment was outlined clearly by both the King and Prime Minister: to divest the army of roles it has played in the past, which include making investments, buying shares, developing real estate and owning assets. They stressed that the armed forces should seek to increase and develop their income. However, due to corruption cases and incidents of misconduct that have come to light recently, it is felt this should be done through a proper experienced body that is subject to auditing and supervision by both the legislative and executive authorities, in this case the Ministry of Defence. In a letter to the PM, the King therefore requested to reinstate the functions of the Ministry of Defence (which was combined with the PM’s office in the 1970s) to allow full separation between professional and warfare duties in the military.
The opposing side are supportive of reviving the Ministry of Defence but they have expressed concern that the second amendment effectively shifts oversight of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and the GID from the government to the King, thus giving the head of state constitutional accountability by making him responsible for their actions and decisions. They argue that this might undermine the oversight process.
Politically, and according to many parliamentarians and political activists, the amendments signal that the country is marching towards more formal ‘parliamentary government’. The Jordanian Parliament has endorsed many draft laws that pave the way for more reforms, for example of political parties and the constitutional court laws, not to mention the parliamentary election draft law. Adding to that, some officials have real concerns that political parties or parliamentary blocs would politicise those positions once the concept of parliamentary governments is established, as has happened in neighbouring countries such as Lebanon. Others see this concern as unnecessary, on the basis that an elected parliament with security institutions will always strive to achieve the best for the country and avoid any compromise to the natural balance between authorities that would affect the state. Nevertheless, Jordanians have learned a lot from both the outcomes of so-called ‘Arab Spring’ and the instability in neighbouring countries; and the majority believe in adopting a Jordanian model of governance, reforms and democracy.
Only time will reveal the significance of these amendments, but they clearly point to a wider plan for political reform, and political empowerment strongly supported by official institutions and civil society organisations. However, they also highlight that democratic reform will not necessarily adhere to Western models as there is a clear sense that the political system and culture in Jordan is distinct. When the Hashemite Kings exercise their constitutional powers, for example to reverse unpopular governmental decisions or reject a law that would burden the general budget, it is always perceived as being for the greater good of Jordan and its people. The Jordanians trust that the King will always be the referee and never a player.
About the Author
Ghaith Al Amaireh is currently studying for an MSc in Public Policy at the UCL School of Public Policy.