Earlier this year, Jordan passed 30 new amendments targeted at granting the ruling king, Abdullah II, more executive power. The amendments include most worryingly, the creation of a National Security Council, which would be made up of the king, the prime minister, and other kingly appointed officials. Although the amendments passed with the constitutional two-thirds of both the House of Representatives and Senate, the amendments are not without their critics, with MP Salah Armouti calling the amendments, “unnecessary” and “create[s] a new body that will be parallel to that of the executive and legislative branches of government.”
Jordan has long had an executive heavy federal government since its independence in 1952. Abdullah II rules for life and his duties will be passed on to his son. The king’s duties include supreme control over the military, the ability to appoint foreign ministers, appoint the prime minister, and appoint generals. The only major check on his power is parliament, which is composed of two houses- the House of Representatives and the Senate. Since 1989, the House of Representatives is an elected body by the people, while the Senate is an appointed body by the king. Despite being elected, the House of Representatives still largely rallies behind the king, with most of the House being made up of non-partisan loyalists. Even if parliament were to put up heavy resistance to Abdullah II, he holds the constitutional power to dissolve and dismiss parliament at will.
Although Abdullah II has nearly absolute power in Jordan, his power has been waning recently from extra-governmental sources. This includes mass protests over historical unemployment rates, which have been putting pressure on Abdullah II to make reforms. Additionally, in 2020, a protest by the teacher’s union arguing for higher pay was subsequently and violently broken up over the pretext that it was breaking COVID protocols. And more recently, questions have been raised over the legitimacy of Abdullah II’s reign after a failed coup attempt in April of 2021 by Abdullah II’s half-brother, Prince Hamzah.
With rising discontent from both the people and the elites of Jordan, king Abdullah II looked to lock down on his powers in the country with these new amendments. The amendments unsurprisingly passed the Senate quickly and with flying colors. In the House of Representatives, the vote was met with more but still limited hostility, including a fight between two deputies over a mixture of personal and political matters that spiraled into a short-lived but intense brawl on parliament floor.
The amendments would go on to pass in end of January increasing critics fears that parliament may have a largescale corruption and “vote-buying” problem. Despite being the only elected body in Jordanian government, parliament remains the most unpopular institution in Jordan and voter turnout continues to plumet. This distrust is due in large part because those in the lower chamber, The House of Representatives, are mostly wealthy and use their wealth to buy votes from constituents. Corruption and coercion happen during both campaigns and once in the house. Often candidates outright buy votes from people to stay in power, and while in power candidates are threatened by the king who may executively withhold funds. “Whenever [parliament] vote for something, they think about it twice. They say, ‘Well if I did that, probably the government would not build a school in my area…’” says Tahboub, an outspoken critic of the Jordanian government. These threats to block funding work to hold members of parliament hostage if they chose to dissent. The passage of these amendments shows an increase support or at least manufactured support for increasing executive authority.
Additionally, this new National Security Council seems to be a continuation of attacks by the Jordanian government on its people’s civil liberties and personal freedoms. In Jordan, the right to freedom of speech and assembly are both guaranteed by the constitution; however, both have been under increasing assault in recent years. In 2019, Jordan passed a bill limiting freedom of speech online and restricting its users from saying anything, “intended to provoke sectarian or racial sedition, advocate violence or foster conflict between followers of different religions and various components of the nation.” Although the law may come under the guise of reducing “hate speech,” the vague wording has led to the law being used to attack journalists, activists, and other critics of the Jordanian government. In 2020, the government dissolved a large-scale protest by the teacher’s union under pretext that it was breaking COVID restricts. The new non-elected and highly centralized National Security Council seems to be a continuation of these threats on civil liberties, creating a great ability for the king and his executive to take down anyone who dissents with him under the façade of “national security.”
Although Jordan may have existed in a largely restrictive and authoritarian society, these new amendments are attacking and eroding the few remaining democratic and free elements of the Jordanian state.
Hi Quinlan, I think you did a great job at articulating the authoritarian consolidation currently occurring in Jordan as well as the pushback it is receiving. The dynamic of King Abdullah II attempting to instill democratic reforms while also trying to consolidate power is very interesting. If the King passes reforms that strengthen the legitimacy and integrity of elections, such as getting rid of the “wasta” bribery system, he might also lose the loyal support of tribal elites that rely on this system. It makes me wonder if one of the other reasons behind passing these amendments is because he expects to lose a significant portion of his support base in the House of Reps in the near future.