Since King Abdullah II’s accession to the throne in 1999, expectations for political reform and related debates in Jordan have intensified. In this period, five prime ministers have formed governments. In his letter of designation to successive prime ministers the king has demanded political reform, sometimes explicitly defining the issues (reform of the electoral system, political parties’ law) and other times just citing the need for political development. Despite the king's demands, there has been little progress. In fact, it is the very instability of Jordanian governments and their utter dependence on the king that renders them unable to meet his demands.
The king appoints and dismisses prime ministers and ministers and therefore has the power to enforce the reform agenda he has adopted. But the "reformers" appointed as ministers and advisors to introduce political reform so far have not been, with a few exceptions, political reformers. Concerned with economic rather than political reform, they did not see political reform as a top priority and in fact were more liberal authoritarian than reformist in orientation. Some reform-minded politicians and activists were discouraged by this state of affairs and withdrew from the reform effort, complaining of a lack of official support for their reform programs at critical times.
The slowness in reform may not be due to the faults of individual prime ministers or ministers, but rather to a structural problem caused by the current method of government formation. Governments serve at the king's pleasure. Therefore the king is indirectly liable for his governments’ failings because the people cannot hold the government accountable through periodic elections. Even the parliament has little say on government formation and dismissal. Although governments must be endorsed by parliament, they are not parliamentary majority governments.
Prime Minister Marouf Al Bakhit’s government is now preparing new legislation for political parties, elections, and municipalities among a host of other bills dealing with political reform. The fear is that work on this legislation, as with previous attempts, will not be completed if the government is changed. The pattern has been that a government begins working on legislation by debating the ideas with the relevant actors, but is then changed; the a new government then reinvents the wheel even though many of the issues may have already been settled. The record of appointed governments has also been unimpressive on other priority issues for the Jordanian people such as unemployment, poverty, corruption, and price increases.
A sense of public disappointment with the pace of political reform is evident in polls conducted by the Center for Strategic Studies. Over the past ten years, on average, Jordanians perceive the level of democracy in Jordan as rating roughly 5 out of 10. Yet over 85 percent of Jordanians prefer a democratic political system for their country, and a similar percentage rejects authoritarianism. Thus it is clear that Jordanian political reform lags behind what the public wants.
In order to address growing demand for—and disappointment in—political reform, the monarchy should lead the process of political reform and allow the coalition that gains a majority in parliament to form a government. This would require adopting a new electoral law creating the necessary conditions for nationwide political coalitions. Fifty percent of parliamentary seats should be elected based on proportional representation. The state might well need to help organize center-left and center-right coalitions to compete in the elections. A third list would undoubtedly be composed of Islamists. The official line is that the monarchy cannot create such an option while political parties are still weak. But people will not join political parties and participate in the political process until they see real incentives to do so. Once they have a clear mechanism that encourages them to become active, Jordanians can be relied upon to act in their own interests in the political realm.
Fares Braizat is a researcher and polling expert at the Center for Strategic Studies at the University of Jordan in Amman