Jordan's Domestic Evolution and Regional Implications

5 MINS READJun 1, 2012 | 10:00 GMT
Jordan's Domestic Evolution and Regional Implications
Jordanian Prime Minister Fayez Tarawneh at the Royal Palace in Amman on May 2

Jordanian Prime Minister Fayez Tarawneh told members of the coordination committee for opposition parties May 29 that Jordan's future Cabinets likely would be parliamentary governments, Jordan's official Petra news agency reported. Appointed in April, Tarawneh said his administration would work to hold parliamentary polls before the end of 2012. Tarawneh and opposition leaders, not including the Islamists, agreed to work to create an election law that addressed the majority's concerns, such as allowing the prime minister to come from the parliament.

Allowing parliament to choose the prime minister would be a fundamental shift in the relationship between the Jordanian monarchy, political parties and the electorate. Traditionally, the monarchy has appointed the prime minister, but a change would allow Jordanian King Abdullah II to counter growing unrest in the country while highlighting the monarch's confidence that the royal family will not lose power. By letting parliament choose, the monarchy would transfer the burden for reform and economic growth onto political parties and remove itself from direct leadership. While it may allow King Abdullah to better navigate the political turbulence manifesting throughout the Arab world, the move would create major problems for the monarchies of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), especially in Kuwait and Bahrain, where opposition forces (inside and outside parliament) have been demanding that the legislature, not the monarchy, choose the prime minister.

One of the key complaints of those calling for reforms in Jordan is that prime ministers have been appointed by the king, who then constantly replaces them to deal with public disapproval of the state. (Since Jordan's independence in 1946, the palace has appointed more than 60 prime ministers, including three since the Arab unrest broke out in 2011.) Palace appointments are also problematic because they make the prime minister less accountable to the public, and several premiers have been accused of corruption and political and economic mismanagement. Until recently, replacing the prime minister whenever the public opposed the government has worked well.

In the wake of regional unrest, this tactic has become ineffective because the king and the royal family, as opposed to the government, have become the targets of public ire. And for the first time, the monarchy is losing support from the tribal East Bankers, a traditional power base for the Hashemite rulers. The monarchy realizes that it must relinquish some power to defuse the situation. One such way is to allow the parliament to elect a prime minister, as the monarchy of Morocco did following elections in 2011.

Tarawneh's statement shows that the Hashemites are confident that the move will not undermine the monarchy's status as ultimate authority in the country. This is because current electoral laws heavily favor rural voters. The country's most organized political force, the Muslim Brotherhood (MB), is largely an urban phenomenon and thus unable to dominate the parliament. In fact, this has been the case since the early 1990s, which is why the MB boycotted the most recent elections. Rural voters are also mostly East Bankers and tribal members, whose relationship with the monarchy the king has lately taken great pains to reaffirm.

Furthermore, the king has been able to play Jordan's two main social groups, the Palestinian-Jordanians and the East Bankers, off each other to ensure that no single political force can dominate the government. Through its links to largely independent legislators, the monarchy could still influence the parliament's choice of prime minister.  

Though the MB remains contained through gerrymandering, if it did gain a share of the parliament it would still be countered by opposing forces. Also, the MB has a long history of loyalty to the monarchy and is highly unlikely to change its position. The MB's attitude is in line with the population's general aversion to the idea of toppling the monarchy, especially in light of the chaos that has consumed several neighboring countries, such as Syria.

The Hashemites are not completely against MB influence in the government. In the early 1990s, the MB had five ministers in the Cabinet with five different ministries, and after the outbreak of the Arab unrest, the state repeatedly called on the MB to join the government, which the Islamist movement rejected. The MB has been co-opted to the point that it is opposition only nominally and is not likely to confront the monarchy — at least for the short-term to midterm. In Morocco's case, the Islamist Justice and Development Party won the majority in the elections, but the Moroccan regime has maintained power.

With sufficient levers at his disposal, King Abdullah could endure the parliament's appointing the prime minister, and it could help Jordan maintain regime stability. But it would set a difficult precedent for the GCC states, particularly Kuwait and Bahrain, where the public is more intensely demanding that the prime minister lead the government. More important, political turmoil in Kuwait and Bahrain has lasted longer and has more depth than that in Jordan.

The Kuwaiti rulers, like the Jordanians, have been experimenting with limited parliamentary democracy since the 1990s. The opposition dominates the Kuwaiti parliament (34 of 50 seats and most of them Islamists), but the ruling al-Sabah family has not allowed the legislature to seriously question the monarchy-appointed prime minister or his Cabinet. In fact, they have dissolved parliament on multiple occasions, especially since 2005, and held fresh elections to secure a more pliant National Assembly.

But each successive election has made matters worse by increasing the number of opposition lawmakers so that they currently are in the majority. The problem the al-Sabah family faces (and the Hashemites in Jordan do not) is that in Kuwait, there are rival families who could challenge the al-Sabahs' supremacy. The prime minister is third in line for succession, after the emir and crown prince, and if he is chosen by the parliament, the al-Sabah family could not guarantee the survival of its reign over the long term.

The situation is worse for Bahrain. Manama has had an extremely difficult time quelling particularly violent unrest, some of which involves the majority Shia seeking more power for the parliament. The Bahraini prime minister is especially traditional and anti-reform, and the Shiite demand for his removal has created a deadlock. Bahrain's al-Khalifa regime has had to rely on forces from Saudi Arabia and other GCC states to help maintain order and is now discussing a possible union with Riyadh to sustain the Sunni monarchy's control and prevent Bahrain from succumbing to Iranian influence.

For Kuwait and Bahrain, Jordan's allowing its parliament to elect the prime minister sets a bad precedent, and Amman likely will face considerable opposition to this idea from the GCC countries. However, these countries have been comfortable with Morocco making a similar move and may have to endure Jordan's following suit, given its interest in ensuring the stability of the monarchy. Though if the monarchy ends up losing power, it could set a far worse precedent.

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