13 February 2013, 16:39

Jordan gaining democracy?

Jordan gaining democracy?
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Two years to the day after Hosni Mubarak resigned as President of Egypt – after the Arab Spring spread like wildfire across the Middle East – Jordan’s King has promised electoral reform in the country.
King Abdullah announced that the Jordanian parliament would become more representative – after Islamists boycotted last month’s elections.

Although the Kingdom of Jordan didn’t make the headlines as Egypt or Libya did during the Arab Spring, this constitutional monarchy where the king’s powers are almost absolute first appeared ready to consider greater democracy. On Sunday King Abdullah II told the newly inaugurated 150-member Parliament, the first to be elected since the Arab Spring, that more electoral reform is needed during current proportionate representation. The elections held on January, 23rd were the first since the King devolved some of his powers to parliaments last year, as part of his constitutional reform program, following anti-corruption protests in the wake of the Arab Spring. Voters were allowed to cast two ballots at the elections – one for a candidate in their constituency and one for a party at national level. 15 seats in Parliament are reserved for women. Rona Sweiss, a journalist based in Jordan’s capital, Amman, doubts the King’s promises for electoral reform.

“I wouldn’t see that it is going through a very large change. We’re still waiting to see, for example, the constitutional amendments implemented, we’re still debating electoral laws that are still not satisfactory. We will have to wait to see how long the Parliament will be in place – will it be changed after 6 months or will it serve the actual 4 years, which it hasn’t in a very long time. We had six Prime Ministers in the last two years. We still have freedom of expression and other laws that are quite a problem. All these things – they still have to take place.”

However, Daout Kuttab, Director General of the Independent Community Media Network in Jordan, says that although more needs to be done, Jordan is on the right track to democracy.

“One cannot discount 2.5 million people who registered to vote and 1.3 million people who actually voted out of the population. So more than 50% of the registered voters did cast their ballots and I think to the King and to the people who support him, that’s a validation of his way of thinking. But, yes, there’s a strong opposition made up of the Muslim Brotherhood and some independent activists who feel that it’s too little too late, but nevertheless there’s also strong group of people who do support what the King has done.”

Country’s tribal political establishment initially resisted attempts to give a higher proportion of parliamentary seats to the urban areas, which have large populations of Palestinians. Palestinians make up the majority of Jordan’s 7-million population, but only 20% of the seats in last month’s elections were won by Jordanians of Palestinian origin. During the January elections the Islamic Front, Jordan’s branch of the Muslim Brotherhood and the country’s biggest opposition party which is popular among poor Palestinians abstained from the vote. Dr. Omar Ashour is from the University of Exeter.

“There’re major movements on the streets. They only think that they were not sustained. Certainly Jordan has the East Bank and West Bank divide, the majority of population of the Palestinian origins versus significant large minority of East Bank origins. This significant minority rallies around the King, because it sees others as outsiders, as an ethnic dimension that is very sensitive in Jordan. As a result you might see the split in the support.”

But Daout Kuttab, a native Palestinian himself, insists that although electoral reform in Jordan is gradual, it’s nonetheless having an effect.

“There’s a reform going on in Jordan, it’s very small, it’s not as big as many people want, but one cannot disagree that this election was more honest, more free and more transparent. And there’s a process of creating a political party system, which didn’t exist before. Having said that, there’s also a strong opinion that more needs to be done. In fact, the King has said that more needs to be done! On that level, I think there isn’t disagreement.”

King Abdullah yesterday tasked his Chief of Staff to begin consultations with newly elected Parliament to choose the next Prime Minister of Jordan. It seems that everyone in Jordan is hoping that his reform program will bring greater democracy to the country.

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