Jordan’s King Abdullah II, under pressure to meet popular demands for political changes, is pushing to hold crucial early elections before the end of 2012 but his opponents say his reforms do not go far enough.
A week after appointing a new government to replace one he deemed too slow to act on reforms, the king on Monday approved an Independent Elections Commission to oversee the polls, headed by former UN special envoy to Libya and career diplomat, Abdul Ilah al-Khatib.
“Jordan has a historic opportunity to determine its future this year,” the king told lower house deputies, urging them to work with the government on laws governing political parties, elections and a constitutional court.
“All these efforts will be meaningless if they do not result in holding fair and transparent parliamentary elections before the end of this year,” a palace statement quoted him as saying.
Jordanian officials insist the king is “determined and very serious” about reforms, but others, including the influential opposition Islamists, charge that steps taken to introduce political changes are still “marginal.”
Laws on political parties and elections should be approved by parliament during its current session, which the king has extended to June 25 to pass key legislation.
“The electoral law is now in the hands of parliament. Political powers and MPs should start a dialogue in order to choose the agreement on the law,” said Information Minister and government spokesman, Samih Maaytah.
“Of course this does not mean that all the demands of political powers must be met. The two sides should find a middle ground solution, and the government will support all reform efforts.”
Under the proposed law, voters can cast three ballots: two for individual candidates in their governorates and one for a party or coalition nationwide, in line with a proportional representation system.
It scraps a contested one-person-one-vote system and increases the number of seats in parliament to 138 from 120, including an expanded quota system for women from 12 to 15.
However, only 15 seats can be contested by candidates representing political parties — the remainder are reserved for independents.
The opposition has harshly criticised the system, under which the country’s 23 political parties can only field five candidates each to compete for the 15 seats.
The Islamists, trade unions and media have repeatedly attacked the one-person-one-vote system first adopted in 1993, which they say produces loyalist MPs who do not represent the people.
“We do not seek elections for the sake of elections. The previous polls produced MPs who do not represent the people. Now the political atmosphere is worse, and we do not want a reproduction of the current lower house,” Zaki Bani Rsheid, deputy leader of the Muslim Brotherhood, told AFP.
“What is the point of holding elections under a law that seeks to exclude national powers? All these so called reform measures are marginal. They are not even close to the essence of the democratisation process.”
According to the constitution, elections take place every four years, but Jordan held early polls in 2010 after the king dissolved parliament.
The Islamists boycotted these elections in protest at constituency boundaries set under the contested law, saying it over-represented rural areas considered loyal to the government at the expense of urban areas seen as Islamist strongholds.
MP and columnist Jamil Nemri said the electoral committee was a “good step,” but complained of “elusiveness” in implementing reforms.
“We say we want to reform but we are not doing anything about it. There is elusiveness in introducing real reforms. I think the electoral law and the elections represent the last test,” he told AFP.
Analysts and Islamists also say that the new government under the leadership of the new premier, Fayez Tarawneh, who replaced Awn Khasawneh, an International Criminal Court judge, is too “conservative.”
“Jordan is facing a dilemma, and the majority of people are not optimistic about reforms. Ordinary Jordanians have been waiting for more than a year to see change,” political analyst Hassan Abu Hanieh told AFP.
Khasawneh was the third prime minister to be appointed in 2011, which, according to Abu Hanieh, indicates “political instability.”
The country has seen relatively small but persistent Arab Spring-inspired demonstrations almost every week since January 2011 to demand sweeping reforms.
“The mechanism of changing governments should be changed. It should be transparent and clear. Why would a man like Khasawneh quit if he is described as a reformist? This shows that we suffer from political instability,” Abu Hanieh said.
“To start a process of genuine reforms, you need an electoral law that represent all Jordanians, and then take it from there to address other issues.”