AMMAN, Jordan – Jordan's parliament voted Saturday for the monarchy's caretaker prime minister to form a new Cabinet, the first time in the country's history that the legislature rather than the king has decided who will be head of government.
Abdullah Ensour, a former liberal lawmaker known for fiery criticisms of the government when he was in parliament, was selected as part of a reform program aimed at defusing political unrest to stave off an Arab Spring-style uprising.
But he is also committed enough to Abdullah's plan for cautious reforms to be the king's choice for prime minister in October, when the sitting government was dissolved prior to parliamentary elections. Those elections were boycotted by the country's largest opposition group, the Muslim Brotherhood, producing a legislature that has a heavy contingent of conservative tribal lawmakers traditionally loyal to the king but also a surprisingly large opposition bloc of about 50 Islamist, leftists, and others.
Mohammed al-Haj, head of the Islamist Centrist Party which won the largest bloc of 16 seats in elections on Jan. 23, said at least 80 out of 150 lawmakers voted for Ensour. "We gave him the chance to remain in office and pick his Cabinet from inside or outside parliament," said al-Haj.
King Abdullah II formally confirmed Ensour's appointment. Abdullah has in the past selected prime ministers, but he relinquished that right as part of the reform package announced last year.
A government official said Ensour will name his Cabinet this week, ahead of a regional tour by U.S. President Barack Obama that includes a stopover in Jordan.
Once the Cabinet is sworn in by the king, it will seek a parliamentary vote of confidence necessary to install it, said the official, speaking anonymously as he was not allowed to comment on matters related to cabinet formation.
In the letter that appointed Ensour, King Abdullah said the prime minister would remain in office for the next four years. Jordanians in street protests since the start of the Arab Spring have been critical of the king for changing his prime ministers frequently — at least four times in the past two years.
The king said the Cabinet should pursue further liberalization and decentralization. He did not mention any specific changes, but the king has repeatedly referred to a controversial election law that the opposition says favors the conservative tribal candidates, and which was the cause of the Brotherhood's boycott.
Abdullah also said the Cabinet should target the government bureaucracy, known for nepotism, corruption and inefficiency. "We also want a white revolution in the public sector to improve its performance and skills, ensure transparency and better service to citizens," he said.
He also called for immediate plans to improve the ailing economy of his resource-barren nation, which depends on U.S. aid to keep its economy afloat. Jordan is saddled by poverty, unemployment, a record budget deficit of $3 billion last year resulting from a rising energy bill and the cost of hosting more than 420,000 Syrian refugees.