Jordan critics say proposed amendments don't go far enough

A panel proposes 42 amendments to the Jordanian constitution that King Abdullah II endorses, but critics say they are insufficient.

AMMAN // Jordan's King Abdullah II has welcomed amendments to the kingdom's 1952 constitution that would transfer some of his powers to parliament and enhance civil liberties, but critics said the changes are insufficient.

Under pressure from protests at home, the king in April appointed a panel of elder statesmen to draw up changes to the constitution. Late Sunday, the panel presented him with a report recommending 42 changes to the document.

The proposals roll back past alterations to the constitution that have been criticised for sidelining parliament and eroding the government's executive powers while enabling the security apparatus to grow in influence and personal freedoms to be whittled away. Under the suggested changes, which must be approved by King Abdullah and the parliament, the monarch still retains most of his absolute powers.

"These historic constitutional revisions reflect the high level of political maturity among Jordanians," the king told the panel during a ceremony in the palace.

He also said the amendmendments, which are expected to win parliamentary approval within a month, would lay the foundation for political reforms by the end of the year.

Ahmad Lozi, a former prime minister who presided over the committee, said the aim of the panel's work was to make the constitution "more responsive to change and to the development of the democratic process."

Protesters have staged street demonstrations for seven months to demand a greater say in politics, lower food prices, an end to government corruption and the election of a prime minister, who currently is appointed by the king. They argue that King Abdullah reigns rather the rules this country of 6.5 million people.

Jordan's powerful Islamist opposition dismissed the proposals as inadequate.

"They are well below our expectations. They do not address the major demand, which is the right to elect governments," said Jamil Abu Baker, spokesman for the Muslim Brotherhood. "There should be an article in the constitution that stipulates an elected government based on a parliamentary majority."

He added: "The people are the source of power according to the constitution, and they have the right to choose their government."

A group calling itself the National Initiative for the Constitutional Monarchy, composed of a group of nationalists, leftist and Islamists, was also unimpressed.

"Our main demand for reform - the establishment of a constitutional monarchy - has not been met," said Jamal Tahat, the group's coordinator. "Any proposals that do not address this demand are not acceptable. We want the king to be the head of the state."

Mr Tahat said the royal-appointed commission was aimed only at stalling reform. His group would continue mounting protests, he said.

Elsewhere, there was praise for the proposed amendments.

The Jordan Times called them "another milestone" that would "consolidate the system of checks and balances among the three branches of government."

A recommended constitional revision calling for dropping the minimum age to run for parliament from 30 years to 25 drew particularly effusive appreciation from Rani Dababneh, founder of the group blog.

"He is giving people like us a chance to reach parliament and replace old fashioned legislatures," Mr Dababneh said. "The king is preparing the country for a constitutional monarchy."

During a recent meeting with a group of young Jordanians, Mr Dababneh recalled, King Abdullah said he wanted to see political parties from all points on the political spectrum compete for seats in parliament, adding that the process of reform must be gradual to prevent the "same improper cultural behavior of voting for acquaintances."

Against the background of more insistent demands for wider political participation, the royal palace has so far managed to contain growing discontent from the tribes, who dominate parliament under an electoral system that favours sparsely-populated tribal regions and forms the backbone of support for the monarchy. Aides say King Abdullah, who has ruled since 1999, has been forced to take only cautious steps towards democracy, constrained by the tribal power base which sees reforms as a threat to its political and economic benefits. The king has said his reformist agenda has been frustrated by conservative politicians who hold extensive power within the security establishment.

*Additional reporting by Reuters and the Associated press