Jordanian king appoints new prime minister amid economic protests

Jordanian protesters said they would not quit until the government-proposed tax bill has been scrapped.
Tuesday 05/06/2018
Jordanian riot police and security forces scuffle with protesters during a demonstration outside the Prime Minister's office in Amman, on June 5. (AP)
Jordanian riot police and security forces scuffle with protesters during a demonstration outside the Prime Minister's office in Amman, on June 5. (AP)

LONDON - Jordanian King Abdullah II appointed cabinet member Omar Razzaz, a leading reformer and former senior World Bank official, as the country’s prime minister.

The royal court announced the appointment on June 5. Razzaz replaced Hani Mulki, who resigned June 4 amid widening protests over the government’s austerity measures, including a planned tax increase.

Several thousand Jordanians marched towards the prime minister’s office, demanding the government scrap proposed tax increases, which critics say would mostly affect the poor and the middle class.

Protesters shouted slogans against the government and the International Monetary Fund (IMF) as they gathered under a heavy police presence. Protests continued despite Mulki’s resignation. Organisers said they would not quit until the tax bill has been scrapped.

Jordan’s former Education Minister and newly appointed Prime Minister, Omar Razzaz, at the Royal Palace in Amman, last year. (AP)
Jordan’s former Education Minister and newly appointed Prime Minister, Omar Razzaz, at the Royal Palace in Amman, last year. (AP)

A majority of deputies — 78 out of 130 MPs — have said they would vote against the draft legislation.

Riot police scuffled with some marchers while trying to keep them from the building housing the prime minister’s office but the fifth street protest in as many days was largely peaceful.

Razzaz, 58, served as education minister in the Mulki government. King Abdullah has final say on all policy issues and it’s not clear how much of a reform mandate Razzaz will receive.

The king said the new government must review the country’s tax system and initiate a dialogue over the income tax law.

King Abdullah blamed Jordan’s economic woes on regional instability, the burden of hosting hundreds of thousands of Syrian refugees and a lack of international support.

“Jordan today stands at a crossroads, either it can come out of the crisis and provide a dignified life to our citizens or, God forbid, it can go into the unknown but we have to know where we are going,” King Abdullah said in a report carried on the official Petra agency.

Jordanian demonstrators play music and sing during a protest in Amman, on June 5. (Reuters)
Jordanian demonstrators play music and sing during a protest in Amman, on June 5. (Reuters)

The government has proposed a new income tax law, yet to be approved by parliament, that would raise taxes on employees at least 5% and on 20-40% on companies. It was the latest in a series of austerity measures since Amman secured a $723 million loan from the IMF in 2016.

Since January, Jordan, which suffers from high unemployment and poverty, has seen repeated price increases, including for staples such as bread, as well as higher taxes on basic goods. Fuel prices have risen five times since the start of the year and electricity bills have surged by 55% since February.

The measures sparked some of the biggest economic protests in five years.

Jordan, a key US ally, has largely avoided the unrest seen in other countries since the “Arab spring” revolts of 2011, although protests did flare late that year after the government cut fuel subsidies.

The latest protests started May 31 when unions called for nationwide demonstrations. They have rocked several cities, including Irbid and Jarash in the north, Zarqa in the east and the southern city of Maan, which saw deadly riots in the 1980s over rising food prices.

Mulki’s resignation was “a positive sign” the government was taking the protesters’ demands seriously, Jordanian political analyst Samih al-Maitah told Agence France-Presse.

“The income tax draft law is almost certain to be dropped now,” he said.

Jordanian police officers secure the office of the prime minister during a demonstration in the capital Amman, on June 4. (AFP)
Jordanian police officers secure the office of the prime minister during a demonstration in the capital Amman, on June 4. (AFP)

The bill is among measures aimed at slashing Jordan’s public debt from more than 90% of gross domestic product to 77% by 2021.

King Abdullah said gas supply cuts due to attacks on an Egyptian pipeline to Israel and Jordan had cost the kingdom approximately $5.6 billion.

He added that the closure of the borders with the kingdom’s main export markets, war-torn Syria and Iraq, and the cost of securing those frontiers had added to Jordan’s economic woes.

The UN refugee agency says it has registered more than 650,000 Syrian refugees in Jordan since the conflict in Syria began in March 2011.

Jordan says it hosts 1.3 million Syrian refugees and has repeatedly called for more international help.

(The Arab Weekly staff and news agencies)