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Reform and rumblings in Jordan

The Hashemite Kingdom has weathered the past year of regional political upheaval surprisingly well. But the resignation of the prime minister is a reminder of unmet demands for change.

By Staff writer / April 27, 2012

Jordanian Prime Minister Awn Khasawneh stepped down from his post yesterday amid a controversy about a proposed new election law that has roiled the kingdom, with supporters of the old way of doing things squaring off against those demanding a move towards democracy.

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Mr. Khasawneh, a long time adviser to Jordan's royal family, who helped negotiate the country's peace deal with Israel in 1994, was appointed to his post last October in an attempt to mollify growing street protests demanding an opening of the political system.

The election law he's been working on was intended to deliver that opening. But he's been hemmed in on two sides: one, by tribal leaders close to the court and the security services worried that it would end up delivering power into the hands of Jordan's opposition. And two, by the opposition, which has complained loudly that the new law doesn't go far enough.

The law has stalled. And now Khasawneh, who reached out to Islamist politicians, started corruption investigations against high officials, and promised a fairer election law soon after taking office, is gone.

Marc Lynch wrote of Khasawneh's resignation that "the last straw, it appears, was the disappointing new election law which failed to respond to long-standing complaints by political activists, parties, and outside analysts... The sudden resignation of the respected jurist should draw renewed attention to Jordan's political stability – and raise important questions about its willingness and ability to reform."

Curtis Ryan, a political scientist at Appalachian State and author of two books on modern Jordanian politics, wrote an in-depth piece in Foreign Policy about the reform wrangling in the country before Khasawneh resigned. He points to splits between Jordan's Palestinian and East Bank communities (the East Bankers, the "native" Jordanians, are over-represented in the current parliament thanks to existing electoral rules), lawmakers that have appeared mostly interested in preserving their own privilege, and anger from Islamists that the new rules are being designed to limit their possible power.

As much debate as the new law has triggered amongst Jordan's many pro-reform constituencies, political opposition in Jordan has taken a major turn in the last few years by moving beyond just the perennial new electoral law debates. The electoral law matters, to be sure. But opposition forces have rallied over a diverse set of demands that may seem disparate or even muddled to less democratically minded forces in the kingdom, but in actuality represent a fairly clear program. Pro-democracy and pro-reform activists in parliament have at various times called for more checks and balances between the legislature and executive authority (often arguing for a more constitutional monarchy), a more independent judiciary, the release of activists jailed in demonstrations, a reduced role for the (secret police) in daily life, and an end to corrupt governmental and business practices in the context of the country's longstanding economic privatization program.

The stakes are high regarding all these issues -- and of course regarding the electoral law as well -- since the new rules will set the stage for new elections and a new parliament, and opposition forces hope (for the first time in modern Jordanian history) to see future governments drawn from parliamentary majorities, rather than by royal appointment.


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