Inside Jordan's proposed constitutional amendment

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Proposed amendments to the Jordanian Constitution will give the king legal authority to appoint top officials while also denying him accountability for decisions those officials make.

AMMAN, Jordan — Slickly and without an in-depth discussion, the Jordanian parliament voted last Sunday [Aug. 24] on a bill to amend two constitutional articles. One amendment is controversial in terms of timing and contradicts the spirit of the parliamentary/hereditary/monarchical rule, in that order. This amendment would give the king the legal prerogative to appoint the chairman of joint chiefs of staff (the army commander) and the director of the general intelligence department. The king has been making such appointments for decades in practice, but not by law.

The second amendment designates the High Electoral Commission to monitor the parliamentary and municipal elections and any other election that the government may direct the body to monitor, not just the legislative ones.

Jordanians were surprised by how fast parliament dealt with the draft law last Tuesday [Aug. 26] to amend the two constitutional articles. Jordanians were also surprised by how quickly Prime Minister Abdullah al-Nusur responded to King Abdullah II’s message. Nusur asked Abdullah to bless a government project that includes the proposed amendments and to include them in an extraordinary parliamentary session, which already has an overcrowded agenda. Parliament quickly referred the draft amendment to the legal committee for study and then vote on it in the next meeting.

The permission granted to the prime minister came after the king requested to activate the functions of the Ministry of Defense politically, logistically and economically, as well as to separate professional and combat missions for the army and the security services, and between the cabinet’s development, service and logistical roles.

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The goal may be to rid the armed forces of the roles it played in the past 10 years, including investing in a problematic project to develop the Abdali area. This means an independent budget for the army and a parallel budget to the activated ministry that would be subject to the Audit Bureau and the Nation’s Council.

Nusur responded to the request to activate the Ministry of Defense and added a proposal to amend the constitution. So what changed, given that the king already used to appoint the intelligence chief and the army commander by his own will, and present his decisions to the Cabinet, while the Cabinet’s role was confined to making decisions in preparation for the issuance of a royal approval of the appointments?

The vast majority of the public welcomed the idea of ​​expanding the umbrella of the High Electoral Commission from A to Z, because that would enhance its credibility and reduce the chances of fraud and manipulation.

But the timing of the change in how two sovereign posts are filled has sparked controversy, although the controversy is still subdued in the absence of a national, political and media dialogue explaining the decision’s rationale, objectives, dimensions and potential implications.

The traditional media covered the controversial decision and only reported the official version of the story and the opinions supporting it. In contrast, social media was filled with supporting and opposing commentary. Retired soldiers, some political parties and “national” figures opposed the amendments.

The fact that people are expressing diametrically opposing views reflects a sound aspect of society at a time when opposing voices are being excluded and when the margin of public freedoms is declining — reinforced by growing public concerns about chaos and political unrest in the volatile region.

The public is split on the concepts of security and reform. Most citizens no longer wish to hear a progressive reformist discourse calling for building a state of law based on citizenship, justice, dignity, and the separation of powers, given the horrors in Egypt, Libya, Yemen and Syria, where the hope of the Arab Spring turned into strife, infighting and terrorism by the Islamic State (IS) and its sister organizations.

The people are witnessing the devastation around them, are grateful for the security and stability in their country, and are hailing the wisdom of King Abdullah II and his pre-emptive and programmed reformist steps, which dissipated street protests and spared the country the scourge of jumping into the unknown. All opinions being expressed have a sound point of view. But the disagreement revolves around how the constitutional amendments would affect the system of political governance.

The official version contends that Jordan is advancing toward the concept of a “parliamentary government” through elections accompanied with a gradual and safe reforms package. Jordan has completed or initiated draft laws that constitute an incubator for political reform, including modifying the law of parties and legislative elections, and working on a draft law for municipal elections and decentralization at the provincial level.

The constitution was amended because of fears that political parties or large parliamentary blocs would hamper the formation of future governments and politicize the posts of the army chief and intelligence chief, similar to what is happening in Lebanon, for example. In the case of Jordan, the Muslim Brotherhood and its political arm, the Islamic Action Front Party, remain the most organized and influential forces in the street.

In the above scenario, a parliamentary speaker may impose a prime minister by getting the support of 80 deputies if the concept of a representative government is applied. The democratic experience in Jordan is still feeble compared to what it is in the West. The demographic composition doesn’t contribute to neutralizing these sensitive government posts (army and intelligence heads).

Sources close to decision makers in Jordan told Al-Hayat that the political system has started to feel that it is the stronger party after the kingdom managed to overcome the repercussions of the Arab Spring with the least amount of damage via a carrot-and-stick policy. Therefore, there was a rare opportunity to pass these problematic amendments. This is the second time this happened in two years.

The sources insist that parliament can engage in dialogue with the army regarding the military budget, as an extension to what occurred a few months ago in a private meeting between deputies and the joint chiefs of staff. In parallel, the Audit Bureau and the Nation’s Council can monitor the budget of the Ministry of Defense, a process that will be headed by a civilian or military person.

It is interesting that this is the first time that the post of intelligence director is named in the constitution. Activists consider that as a reformist step.

Other voices within the political system — including conservative forces — see no harm in granting the king the exclusive power to fill these two posts. There is an argument that the king will move to dismiss any official who is proven to be incompetent or corrupt, citing precedents in this regard. Those defending the amendments say that the laws governing the operation of these institutions will not change and that those laws have enough controls as well as functional hierarchies to ensure that the regulations are properly applied.

In contrast, some voices are wary of poorly calculated adventurism as a result of the quickness of the constitutional amendments. The public opinion was surprised when both proposals were included in the same basket, one palatable (expanding the role of the Election Commission) and the other problematic.

These amendments, according to some, strip the government from its public prerogatives over internal and external matters and may put the king within the scope of constitutional accountability. The amendments may also make the people blame the palace for errors. The proposed amendment may be inconsistent with a constitutional article about a government based on parliamentary/hereditary/monarchical rule and turn it into a monarchical/parliamentary/hereditary rule, in that order.

The amendment may also be contrary to Article 40, which stipulates, “The head of state is immune from any liability and responsibility and his oral and written orders do not relieve the ministers of their responsibilities.” Thus, the cabinet is the one that covers the responsibility of the king in front of parliament and takes responsibility for all the actions of the executive branch, through rewards or punishments.

If the proposed amendments pass, the government will give up its right to appoint the leaders of the security services but will remain accountable for the consequences of those appointments.

Those opposing the amendments wonder: Why doesn’t the Jordanian constitution become amended along the lines of the Moroccan constitution in 2011, whereby the council of ministers is chaired by the king out of his own initiative or at the prime minister’s request? The new constitution explicitly states that the king must designate the head of the largest party to form a government.

Most Jordanians believe that parliament will approve the amendments as it is. In the end, no one can put sticks in the wheels of objective political and security circumstances. But the coming months and years will reveal the real motive behind these amendments. They may turn out to be a transitional step toward reform that paves the way for representative government, with the hope that this will be accompanied by forming parties and movements with economic programs. Ones that accept pluralism and that respect the separation of powers in a vibrant civil society alongside a media that is not in the ruler’s lap, with a dynamic educational and economic system that expands the middle class and the culture of dialogue.

The other possibility is that the amendments may end up damaging the system of political governance by concentrating powers in the hands of the king and making the people hold the royal palace responsible for any errors that might be committed by the security institutions. There is a fear that the king will turn from a referee who sits above all powers into a player.

In the case of the latter, Nusur’s government would enter the history books as the government that abrogated reforms and dealt a blow to the principle of concurrence of authority and responsibility. This concurrence is supposed to keep the king immune in parliamentary, monarchical, hereditary systems, both young and old.

No system in the world has a constitution that exempts the party that makes the decision from being held responsible for the consequences of that decision. The basic principle is that the people are the source of authority and that the government holds the general jurisdiction and is held accountable for its actions in front of parliament.

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Found in: parliamentary system, king abdullah ii, jordanian government, jordan, constitutional reform, constitution, arab spring
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