King Abdullah II’s May 29 appointment of Hani al-Mulqi, head of the Aqaba Special Economic Region Authority, to replace outgoing prime minister Abdullah Ensour comes at a turning point for Jordan. Though the office has limited inherent power—especially since a set of constitutional amendments announced in April enhanced executive authority and, specifically, the power of the king—it signals a shift toward a more technocratic government, even if not an independent one. These changes, which coincide with the king’s dissolution of parliament, should leave the next parliament with the unhappy role of forming the budget and managing an unpopular process of cutting fuel and electricity subsidies while Mulqi, with his technocratic experience, becomes the public face of a painful austerity program.
These changes coincide with rhetoric about Jordan’s need for a “parliamentary government.” King Abdullah has spoken about this periodically for years, meaning that Jordan’s parliament should have a full ideological spectrum of parties and that a coalition government should elect a prime minister. This was done in an informal manner in early 2013, when the king instructed parliament to choose its own prime minister, but after some squabbling they were unable to come up with an alternative to the king’s previous choice of Ensour, the standing prime minister. The idea of parliamentary autonomy has now returned: on April 21, an op-ed by Jawad Anani, a former minister later selected to be Deputy Prime Minister for Economic Affairs under Mulqi, argued in the official al-Dustour newspaper that the amendments had precisely this role: “to achieve the king’s vision of a parliamentary government based upon political parties.” A similar article by former interior minister Hussein Hazza al-Majali in al-Rai expressly pushed the constitutional amendments as “preparatory” to achieve the king’s parliamentary government vision.
First announced on April 18, the bill containing the amendments was approved by cabinet the same day, and passed votes in parliament and the senate on April 27 and on May 2, respectively. While the government gave no explanation for why the amendments were introduced at this time and in such haste, the most logical explanation is that this followed a warning from the International Monetary Fund (IMF) that a more stringent adjustment program would be needed. The amendments, which became law on May 5, included lengthening the speaker’s term from one year to two (repeated terms remain permissible), allowing holders of dual nationality to hold top-level executive posts, and providing that a government is no longer dissolved automatically if the prime minister dies in office.
Yet the core amendment was to Article 40, which previously provided that “the king shall exercise the powers vested in him by royal decree. Every such decree shall be countersigned by the prime minister and the minister or ministers concerned. The king expresses his concurrence by placing his signature above the said signatures.” At least formally, this was a check on monarchial power, although the king’s authority to remove ministers at will meant the limitation was nominal. The new Article 40 adds exceptions for many appointments. The text now reads: “the king shall exercise his powers the powers vested in him by royal decree without the signature of the prime minister and the minister or ministers concerned to appoint: the crown prince, the regent [either the crown prince or another prince conducting a function in the king’s absence], Senate president and members, members of the Constitutional Court, president of the Higher Judicial Council, the army’s Joint Chiefs-of-Staff, and the directors of the General Intelligence Department and the darak [riot police].” The government argued, without providing many details, that this was a way of “strengthening the separation of powers, the independence of the judiciary and the neutrality” of the security services. Since the king already had the authority to appoint the cabinet itself alone, this gave him unfettered authority to appoint every powerful position in the state apparatus.
Indeed, though the notion of a parliamentary government has been used to encourage greater autonomy for the legislative branch, the current move appears to have more to do with shifting the burden of unpopular fiscal austerity measures to parliamentarians and away from the palace. The country is on the road to insolvency, with its debt-to-GDP ratio at over 93 percent, an increase of about 50 percent since the beginning of 2011, and still increasing. Much of the commentary in the national press on Mulqi’s appointment stressed his experience in economic portfolios in Aqaba, and former Prime Minister Ensour bequeathed him the conclusion of talks with the International Monetary Fund, whose previous adjustment program was a total failure.
Moreover, while Mulqi has in reality a constituency of one—that is, the king—he is an executive proxy for the king and the policy framework he sets. The monarch can appoint and remove the prime minister at will, and while formally the cabinet holds authority for legislation, key decisions are made by the palace. Despite the fact that Mulqi’s appointment is temporary, the wording of his four-month mandate—which includes carrying out the “Jordan Vision 2025” reform goals and implementing the decentralization law, which does not take effect until 2017’s municipal elections—suggests he may get a renewed mandate once the election is done as well.
The expansion of the king’s powers has stirred some discussion. Perhaps the most notable negative reaction came from former speaker of the lower house of parliament Abdul Karim al-Dughmi, who explained during a speech in Mafraq that the constitution stressed—and still stresses—that ministers are personally responsible for their own actions, and neither verbal nor written instructions from the king relieved a minister of legal responsibility. Noting that the constitution places the king beyond legal accountability (the monarch can neither be questioned nor sued in any court according to Article 30), Dughmi argued the amendments broke down the division between authority and responsibility, since the king now had power to make appointments yet remained immune from legal accountability. He told Al-Jazeera that “Jordan is moving toward an absolute monarchy as opposed to a constitutional monarchy,” and allegedly told local press outlet AmmonNews that the constitutional changes were a coup against the Jordanian political system.
Yet most legislators voiced their support for what they agree is indeed a move towards “parliamentary government.” The Speaker of the Senate, Faisal al-Fayez, gave an explicit endorsement, noting the “successful model in Morocco” in which the king appoints a prime minister nominated by the largest coalition of parties. But unlike in Morocco, there was no referendum to add popular legitimacy to the changes, and there were no qualifications that a government be based on party support. This latter point is important in terms of application: because the putative move toward parliamentary government is informal, the king will maintain discretion to not have a parliamentary government if he so wishes.
In the meantime, the current four-month technocratic government acts without a parliament. Mulqi has wasted little time on fiscal initiatives, although his initial steps show some uncertainty. On June 9, not two weeks in office, the government announced it would be raising electricity prices. A cabinet subcommittee also decided to increase water prices, but the government publicly backtracked on this move within a few days, as the measures might just be too much for the government to implement. Mulqi’s chief short-term task is to reach a new agreement with the IMF, which Minister of Finance Omar Malhas, a holdover from the Ensour government, indicated would be ready in July. Whether or not Malhas remains finance minister after the elections in September, Mulqi is likely to stay on, and the IMF agreement reached this summer will be the center of his new term. Mulqi’s fiscal cuts, likely to be more stringent, may test whether or not the Jordanian street will remain quiescent.
Kirk H. Sowell is the principal of Utica Risk Services, a Middle East-focused political risk firm.