Jordan’s protests offer chance to launch much-needed reforms
Jordan is going through a political crisis; one that has been simmering for some time. The spillover came without warning, as the government submitted a controversial income tax bill to the Lower House, ignoring calls for it to be discussed publicly with various economic sectors first. A day after the country witnessed an unprecedented general strike — organized by the professional associations — in protest at the proposed bill, the government approved a steep hike in the cost of fuel products, thus pushing an anxious public over the edge. Spontaneous anti-government protests broke out across the kingdom.
Even after the government was ordered to reverse its decision on fuel costs by King Abdullah, Jordanians continued their protests; this time calling for the government of Hani Al-Mulki to be sacked. The protesters, the majority being young men and women, want a reversal of austerity measures, transparency in fighting corruption, reforms and accountability. But, most importantly, they want a better future.
King Abdullah has called on the government and parliament to lead a comprehensive and rational national dialogue to reach a consensus on the income tax draft law that does not fatigue the public, combats evasion and improves efficiency of tax collection. He also said that it is unfair for citizens to be left alone to carry the burden of financial reform, stressing that shortcomings in providing vital services such as education, healthcare and transport will not be tolerated.
But, as the protests entered their fifth consecutive day on Monday, with tens of thousands rallying all over the kingdom, Al-Mulki resigned and the king asked former Minister of Education Omar Al-Razzaz to form the next cabinet. Al-Razzaz enjoys credibility and integrity, but the question is will he be able to chart a new course out of the crisis? Another question is how will the leaderless protesters react now that Al-Mulki is gone? Meanwhile, professional associations have not cancelled a general strike planned for Wednesday.
Jordanians have become weary of successive government measures that have led to steep rises in the cost of fuel, electricity and foodstuffs, and overburdened various economic sectors with additional fees and taxes. And the public is yet to see the benefits of a three-year economic restructuring program agreed to with the International Monetary Fund. Meanwhile, government policies have failed to contain the nagging problems of unemployment, which currently stands at about 18 percent, and poverty, at more than 20 percent, while the rate of economic growth remains modest at an average of 2.5 percent annually.
Jordanians have patiently accepted austerity measures in the hope that the current economic stagnation will end soon
Osama Al Sharif
Government austerity, which goes back almost a decade, has failed to address the growing burden of a large and inefficient public sector that drains most of the state budget. Meanwhile, successive governments have resorted to one quick solution in order to raise revenues: Taxing the public. Such an approach has overburdened economic sectors, limited consumer spending and failed to address the endemic problem of budget deficit. Continued and irresponsible borrowing by the government has spiked the national debt to a whopping $39 billion. At the end of 2017, government debt was equivalent to 95.60 percent of the country’s Gross Domestic Product, raising fears that the kingdom was sliding toward insolvency.
Jordanians have patiently accepted austerity measures in the hope that the current economic stagnation will end soon. Al-Mulki promised the public last November that their hardship would end by the middle of this year. That did not happen. In fact, if the income tax bill is approved in its current form, economists and the heads of various economic sectors believe it will stifle the local economy, bringing it to a halt, while failing to increase government revenue and meet IMF targets. The extra burden on the middle class will nearly decimate the economy.
The current crisis has deepened people’s distrust in government policies. Without a public mandate, any future government will have a rough time building credibility and will be alone in facing a growing opposition. The most immediate challenge for any government will be to meet public demands to re-examine the entire economic policy. Furthermore, the crisis has raised calls for a fresh batch of political and economic reforms to be adopted, including a more equitable election law that will lead to the formation of parliamentary governments that are answerable to the people.
The current crisis has underlined a number of important phenomena. In the absence of credible political parties, professional and workers’ associations and unions have resurfaced as the only viable tool for popular political action. Furthermore, the protests, which are spontaneous and largely peaceful, are led overwhelmingly by young men and women who have the most to lose amid worsening economic conditions. The majority is not politicized and its main objective is to ensure a better future.
In addition, it is important to note that the reaction by the police has been disciplined and laudable, setting Jordan apart from many other countries in the region. And one cannot but underline the role that social media platforms have played in mobilizing people at a time when state-run media failed miserably in covering the historic event.
The time has come to pave the way for the formation of parliamentary governments that are accountable to voters. This is the only way that trust can be restored between the public and future governments. And, finally, there is a need to initiate a responsible dialogue that involves representatives of all economic sectors on the government’s strategy to kick-start the economy and address the elephant in the room, which is the burgeoning public sector that has become a major hurdle in the path of serious economic reforms.
- Osama Al Sharif is a journalist and political commentator based in Amman. Twitter: @plato010