Jordan's King Abdullah II promised lawmakers Sunday to speed up reforms slowed by unrest across the Middle East, though the kingdom's weakened opposition accused him of finding excuses to hold onto the monarchy's absolute power.
Abdullah told parliament's opening session that he will press ahead with plans to amend election laws the opposition says favor pro-palace candidates and overhaul a public sector widely seen as rife with corruption and nepotism.
The king called the reforms a "white revolution" — a term royal aides say signifies a peaceful change rather than one of turmoil like those brought by the Arab Spring, which saw four regional leaders deposed in uprisings.
The plan, the king said, will restructure state agencies and improve the quality of education, health care and public transportation in a key US ally bordering Syria, Iraq, the Palestinian territories, Israel and Saudi Arabia.
"Jordan is continuing its quest to develop a regional reform model that is home-grown and based on a clear roadmap with specific reform milestones," the king said.
But the opposition met the king's speech, marking the start of parliament's winter session, with skepticism.
"The king is only buying time," said Mohammad Miteb, 19, an accounting sophomore and part of a pro-democracy youth movement. "We're sitting on a powder keg that will soon ignite from sparks, be it from domestic reasons or regional turbulences."
Jordanians fear a spillover of violence from neighboring Syria, where Al-Qaeda and other militant groups based and could take advantage of Jordan's growing calls for change to foment violence.
Yet Jordan so far has weathered nearly three years of street protests calling for a wider public say in politics. Abdullah is a close friend of the US and the country relies on donations from the US and oil-rich Gulf Arabs to keep its fragile economy afloat. It is saddled by a multi-billion-dollar foreign debt, a record $2 billion budget deficit, high inflation and a rising energy bill.
So far, Abdullah largely has maintained control, partly by relinquishing some of his powers to parliament and amending the country's 60-year-old constitution. His Western-trained security forces have been able to keep protests from getting out of hand. And most in the opposition remain loyal to the king, pressing for reforms but not his removal.
Earlier this year, Abdullah said his reforms will lead to the absolute monarchy taking a step back. He said as parliament takes on more responsibility, future monarchs — maybe within five years — will have limited, though still significant responsibilities, mainly preserving their final word in foreign and defense policy.
Sunday, the king said parliament should rewrite laws governing elections and political parties. Jordan's Muslim Brotherhood boycotted both elections this year to protest the laws. The opposition says they favor conservative tribal candidates who back the palace.
The next steps will be to build real political parties, the king said. He said he would like to see Jordan's 23 small and fractured political parties merge into two liberal and conservative coalitions for the next parliamentary election.
Currently, votes are cast on the basis of tribal affiliation and family connections, producing successive parliaments dominated by pro-government, conservative tribal politicians. Although Jordan's multiparty system was revived in 1991, following a 35-year ban after a 1956 leftist coup attempt, opposition parties have yet to gain real power. They say they are intimidated by tight scrutiny and security crackdowns.
"These (proposals) are merely cosmetic and meaningless changes," said Murad Adaileh, a member of the Islamic Action Front, the political arm of the Muslim Brotherhood. "What is needed is a genuine desire for real reforms."