World News

Jordan’s Prime Minister Quits, as Protesters Demand an End to Austerity

Posted June 4, 2018 1:22 p.m. EDT

AMMAN, Jordan — Jordan’s prime minister resigned Monday, after days of nationwide protests against proposed tax and price increases, in a country already suffering from years of declining living standards and rising prices.

But the government offered no sign that the resignation of Prime Minister Hani Mulki after two years in office would bring a change to unpopular austerity measures that are backed by the International Monetary Fund. And his departure may not placate the protesters, who have called for the replacement of the entire Cabinet, and for the government to drop the planned increases.

The government is ultimately controlled by King Abdullah II, who appoints the prime minister, the Cabinet and members of the upper house of Parliament; the elected lower house has limited influence over policy. The king, who has reshuffled the government many times before, appointed Omar Razzaz, a former World Bank official and education minister, to replace Mulki and lead a new government.

The proposal would increase the tax rate on workers by at least 5 percent and on businesses by 20 to 40 percent. The country’s economic picture is already gloomy, with the official unemployment rate above 18 percent and the poverty rate even higher. Hundreds of thousands of Syrian refugees live in Jordan, compounding the country’s economic troubles.

Incomes in Jordan have stagnated for years as prices have soared. Amman ranks as the most expensive city in the Arab world, and it has a higher cost of living than much wealthier cities, like Dubai, London and Washington, according to the Economist Intelligence Unit.

“Successive governments have failed in the eyes of the public,” said Fares Braizat, chairman of NAMA Strategic Intelligence Solutions, a research, polling and consulting firm based in Amman. “This is a statement about bad public economic policy planning and execution.”

More than 30 labor unions and professional groups staged a strike last Wednesday, the largest in years, to protest the bill, which they said would penalize the poor and the middle class. Doctors walked out of hospitals wearing white lab coats, lawyers walked out of courtrooms in their black robes, and shopkeepers shuttered their stores, hanging signs that read: “We are closed. We are on strike.”

A day later, the government increased the price of fuel by more than 5 percent and electricity by 19 percent. The strike turned into daily nationwide protest by thousands of people, the largest in the country since the Arab Spring in 2011.

Abdullah ordered the government to suspend the energy price increases, but the demonstrations continued.

The protests have drawn diverse crowds — unemployed youths, women, store owners, families, Bedouins and techies. They have been eager to show that they do not come from any particular political or demographic group, but represent a broad range of poor and the middle-class Jordanians. The only banner flying in the crowds has been the national flag and protesters have gone out of their way to say that they were standing up for police officers, as well.

“Do you hear us?” crowds chanted in Amman, addressing the government. “Hear us now. We came to say you have left us with nothing. We are broke. The people want the downfall of the government.”

The protests have taken place in the evenings because it is Ramadan on the Islamic calendar, when Muslims fast during daylight hours. A woman wearing a red and white kaffiyeh, or scarf, held a sign that read: “Go away government, so we can go. My father doesn’t like me staying out too late.”

The proposed tax and price increases are the latest in series of austerity measures Jordan has imposed since 2016, when it received a $723 million, three-year line of credit from the IMF. The fund says the sacrifices will lower the government’s debt of $35 billion, advance economic overhauls and promote growth.

While much of the popular anger is about the economy, some experts say it is also about a steady decline of freedoms since the Arab Spring, a lack of democratic change and a perception that corruption is rampant. Protesters blame politicians for squandering public funds.

“The protesters also want a changing social contract,” said Sean L. Yom, a political-science professor at Temple University who studies Middle Eastern governments. “The Jordanian state is asking citizens to pay more and live more frugally, but in return offers little political concessions or more democracy.”

Polls show a significant decline in public confidence in government, particularly in the past year, Braizat of NAMA Strategic Intelligence Solutions said.

Jordan, which does not produce oil or natural gas, relies heavily on aid from the United States and the oil-rich Arab nations states of the Persian Gulf. Maintaining stability in Jordan has been a top U.S. priority in the region for years, but last year, the Gulf states cut their assistance to Jordan, worsening conditions there.