Amman, Asharq Al-Awsat—Jordanian minister of political and parliamentary affairs, Khalid Al-Kalaldeh, informed Asharq Al-Awsat that the government is in the process of revising the current election law in the country.
He said the government is impartial and treated all political parties equally, adding that having talked to Islamists in Jordan, he found their demands to be identical to those of other parties.
Kalaldeh said Jordan is being seriously affected by the Syrian crisis and that the government has been unfairly criticized by the media for the economic woes in the country, when most of the problems are caused by factors out of its control, such as the interruption of Egyptian gas supply, and the Syrian crisis.
This interview has been edited for length:
Asharq Al-Awsat: As minister of political and parliamentary affairs, how do you evaluate the political development process in Jordan. Have its objectives been achieved?
Khalid Kalaldeh: Political development has not achieved the ambition and aims desired by the ministry, but it has laid the foundations for the political development process. Political development is a comprehensive process which needs a concerted effort by all constituents of Jordanian society, state institutions, political parties, and universities, in order to achieve an advanced political development. The basis of a political development process is to simplify matters, not complicate them, and it is natural to have problems during the practical implementation. However, the resolution of these problems should be by expanding democracy, not by going backwards. I think we in Jordan have laid the initial foundations for a political development process, but the domestic, regional and international circumstances, and the worsening economic situation, have not allowed us to achieve the desired reforms.
We were then take by surprise by the so-called Arab Spring and it started to take the shape of protests, and it is natural in such cases for chaos to ensue. But the protests were not too serious and carried slogans, some of which were realistic, and some unrealistic and impossible to implement. These events have been experienced by most countries and I hope that the active forces in society organize their efforts to form a critical bloc which forces officials to listen to their demands.
Q: What is required of you as a government, in order to deal with the situation you mentioned?
As for the government, it must realize that the river never flows backwards. We must prepare the ground, provide freedom to practice, and provide information which enables political forces to make realistic promises they can achieve. As a minister, at this stage I feel conditions are pointing to a real desire by the authorities to continue with strengthening democracy and move forward with political reform.
Q: Following your visit to the headquarters of political parties and your discussions with their leadership, what are their demands of the government?
The demands of political parties are almost identical and their problems are the same. There are demands which are realistic and objective and others that are subjective. The objective demands can be summarized as demands to relax security measures and allow political practice in universities, break the link between parties and the Ministry of Interior, and provide facilities for new sectors of youth to join political activity. As for the subjective part, there is a reluctance to join political activity and deal with the negative sides of social networks for example, which gives the impression that the youth are connected to the outside world through these networks, while in reality, they are stuck behind a computer screen in a virtual world.
Q: Can you talk about the results of your discussions with the political parties?
The indications are positive and the main outcome of these discussions will be embodied by purposeful dialogue sessions that bring together special ministerial committees and the official political parties. This is in order to allow all parties to understand the reality of the economic situation and political thinking within the government, and in order to reach common points of agreement.
Q: The public protests have waned. What’s your view of these protests?
The protests were a means of expressing dissatisfaction with the economic situation in the country. There are initial reform steps that have been taken in this regard, but there are further steps which need to be taken, not least of which, the revision of laws governing political life. There is also public disquiet at the economic situation which is expressed either individually or collectively, and which indicates that the protests are still there but not on the street.
Q: You have contacted the Islamic Action Front (IAF), the political wing of the Muslim Brotherhood. What’s your view of the group?
There is contact between the ministry and the Islamist movement. I visited the IAF and found their demands no different to the demands of other parties. They stressed the importance of maintaining security in Jordan, and that they were on the same side in defense of Jordan and that they are partners in a national dialogue which could lead to the desired reforms. The message we sent to them and the other parties is that the government is impartial and will treat them all equally, and the party which wants to stand out, does so through elections by winning a majority in parliament. There are no special privileges given to anyone.
Q: Do you expect the Islamist movement to end its boycott of the parliamentary elections?
Indicators say the IAF is involved in the political process in Jordan and Islamists have no prior conditions any more. I expect the next stage to see their participation in the redrafting of laws which govern political life, taking into account that the portal for change is the parliament, which means political parties have a chance for dialogue in two stages: Firstly when the government prepares draft laws and secondly when it sends the laws to parliament, in order to ratify, amend or reject them. I did not feel any objections to the parliament from any of the parties, including the Islamists.
Q: There seems to be tension in the relationship between the government and the parliament. Would you agree?
The differences between the government and the parliament are natural, because the task of the parliament is to monitor the government’s performance. The government, meanwhile, makes decisions which may not be popular, and due to the bad economic situation and the budget crisis the government has to make decisions to deal with the economic situation. These decisions are not acceptable to the parliament, but in the end, it is in the government’s interest to have a strong parliament monitoring its work.
Q: Will the government present a new consensual election law which ends the disagreements about this?
The fact that the government has announced it will revise the election law through dialogue with the popular forces and activists means there is dissatisfaction with the current law, and in the end, the government, after the dialogue, will present a new election law and send it to the parliament which has the constitutional power to ratify or amend it.
Q: Is Jordan affected by what is happening in Syria?
We hope the suffering of the Syrian people ends and that the unity of Syria is maintained. We also hope the right of the Syrian people to a free and decent life is respected, and that there is no outside military intervention to resolve the Syrian crisis, based on the fact that the best way to resolve the crisis is through dialogue. Jordan is suffering from the worsening of the Syrian crisis because of the presence of around 1.25 million refugees on its territory, which negatively affects the economic situation, which is already in crisis. The refugee crisis has placed pressure on the scarce water and energy resources in Jordan. The international aid has not reached the minimum required levels and Jordan cannot be left to face this reality alone.
Q: A large Gulf grant has been offered to Jordan. How is this grant going to contribute to economic development?
There is no doubt that the stance of our brothers in the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), who have often offered help to Jordan, is one of the main reasons for Jordan’s stability, especially that there is a Gulf grant spread over four years, which we think will help reduce the suffering of the Jordanian citizens and improve the economic situation.
Q: There are those who say your government has made a mistake in its decisions to raise prices. What’s your view?
The media has been unfair regarding the economic decisions made the government. For example, the crisis of the interruption of Egyptian gas supply worsens the budget deficit and costs the treasury an extra USD 5 million per day. This deficit is not the government’s fault, but international financial institutions pressure the government to reduce the deficit. The recent controversy about the government’s decision to raise the tax on imported clothes to 20 percent instead of 5 percent for example, was unfair, because it does not affect clothes made locally or in Arab countries, or affect second–hand clothes. It only affects famous international brands. The citizens who buy local or Arab-made, or second-hand clothes, will not be affected, but those who buy international brands will pay, and that is proof that the government is not targeting the middle and lower classes, as it is often accused.