Proposed Jordan reforms to strengthen parliament

AMMAN Sun Aug 14, 2011 12:34pm EDT

Anti-government protesters shout slogans during a demonstration against what they say are worsening political and economic conditions, after Friday prayers in Amman August 12, 2011. REUTERS/Ali Jarekji

Anti-government protesters shout slogans during a demonstration against what they say are worsening political and economic conditions, after Friday prayers in Amman August 12, 2011.

Credit: Reuters/Ali Jarekji

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AMMAN (Reuters) - Jordan's King Abdullah has backed proposals for constitutional reforms to devolve some of his powers to parliament and enhance civil liberties, palace officials said on Sunday.

Under pressure from the demonstrations sweeping the Arab Middle East and protests at home, the monarch appointed in April a panel of elder statesmen to introduce changes to the kingdom's 1952 constitution as part of a drive he said was aimed at revitalizing long promised reforms.

They are due to formally submit later on Sunday their proposals to the monarch of the most extensive constitutional changes to date, politicians involved in their drafting told Reuters on condition of anonymity.

The proposals roll back major alterations to the kingdom's constitution that have been widely criticized for sidelining parliament and eroding successive governments' executive powers while the security apparatus grew in influence and personal freedoms were whittled away.

"The amendments in the constitution will entail fundamental changes in the separation of powers and creating institutions that ensure the constitution is abided by and the state follows in its steps," said Faisal al-Fayez, the speaker of parliament, which is expected to approve the reforms by mid-September.

By empowering parliament, it would pave the way for a prime minister emerging from a parliamentary majority rather than one handpicked by the monarch, a main plank of the reformist agenda of a mix of Islamist and tribal figures.

But diplomats say the changes, in a text seen by Reuters, do not tackle the role of the mukhbarat, the country's powerful intelligence apparatus who are technically accountable to the prime minister, but have a pervasive influence in public life .

And many still see the U.S.-backed king as the ultimate arbiter and a guarantee of stability in the country of 7 million, torn between a tribal population long used to preferential treatment in state jobs and a majority population of Palestinian descent.

Political commentators say as the long as the electoral system does not address discrimination against citizens of Palestinian origin, grossly underrepresented in parliament and the state, real change was still a long way to go.

"The reforms cannot be complete unless they enhance the participation of all Jordanians on equal footing and treat them as individuals, not as belonging to groups, whether political or tribal," said Labib Kamhawi, a prominent Jordanian analyst.

PROTESTS

Jordan has seen weeks of street protests led by the Islamists and leftist opposition inspired by the wider Arab uprising that have demanded the king fight corruption and called for wider political freedoms.

The palace has so far managed to contain the growing discontent from the tribes who dominate parliament under a electoral system that favors tribal but scarcely populated regions and form the backbone of support for the monarchy by offering patronage and perks.

But critics say the policy is not sustainable in a country dependent on foreign aid to keep it afloat.

Aides say the monarch who has ruled since 1999, has been forced to opt for timid steps toward democracy in response to regional turmoil, constrained by a tribal power base which sees reforms as a threat to political and economic benefits.

King Abdullah has privately said his reformist agenda had been frustrated by conservative politicians who hold extensive power within the security establishment and prevent him from moving faster on promises of democratic reforms.

The text seen by Reuters shows the changes will curb the monarch's power to indefinitely postpone elections -- with a four months deadline to call for polls after the monarch dissolves parliament.

A powerful intelligence apparatus has in the past decade influenced the monarch to postpone elections for up to two years

at a time of regional upheaval, palace insiders say.

"The weakness of governments and decision-makers has allowed the security forces to take over and control all aspects of political and civil life as is the case in Jordan," said Zaki Bani Rusheid, a leading Islamist politician.

The reforms would also end successive governments' abuse of the absence of a legislature to enact laws and unpopular laws that placed tough curbs on public freedoms.

"These interim laws have become a pretext for tampering with the constitution and distorting legislation without any accountability," said Ahmad Obeidat, a former intelligence head turned opposition figure who has called on the king to refrain from any executive role and act as a constitutional monarch.

Under the recommendations, for the first time ministers could be put on trial in civil courts rather than military or state security courts that have been accused by rights campaigners as being illegal.

In a step that has been welcomed by rights advocates, civilians will no longer be tried in state security courts that will also be restricted to look into cases of terrorism and espionage, the amendments say.

Journalist, whose freedoms have been also curbed, will not be subject to the security courts either.

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