June 6, 2018 / 9:39 AM / 17 days ago

Some big Jordanian unions strike despite replacement of PM

AMMAN, June 6 (Reuters) - Jordanian unions pressed ahead with a strike on Wednesday to protest a draft tax law despite efforts by King Abdullah to defuse public anger after the country’s largest protests in years.

Although some unions pulled out of the strike after the king replaced his prime minister, urging new talks over income tax, several shops and pharmacies in the capital Amman shut down and hospital employees staged a protest.

Demonstrations against price rises, including increases in tax, started a week ago, shaking a U.S. ally which has mostly escaped the turmoil that has buffeted the Middle East in recent years.

The monarch, often seen as a unifying figure in Jordan, appointed former World Bank economist Omar al-Razzaz on Tuesday to head a new government after Hani Mulki resigned as premier.

Harvard-educated Razzaz, who served as education minister in the outgoing government, will start consultations on Wednesday to form a new government.

The king has said the new cabinet must review the entire tax system and immediately start a dialogue over a draft income tax law, which the government sent to parliament last month. He called for political parties, unions and civil society groups to take part in the talks.

That did not stop hundreds of people from rallying well beyond midnight amid tight security in the capital, Amman, though in smaller numbers than recent days.

Police blocked the roads to stop the sea of demonstrators with their picket signs from reaching the Cabinet office.

“We don’t want a change of names, we want a change in policy,” one banner read. “Bring back bread subsidies,” another said.

Some celebrated the change in leadership and said they would wait to see if the steps would stop price hikes, which they accuse of hitting the poor.

“I personally feel optimistic and we started to feel the beginning of change,” Murad Yaghan told Reuters at the late night protest as people around him chanted against the government’s economic policies. “We will continue public pressure.”

On Wednesday, some closed shops hung signs saying “I’m taking part in the strike”, but life in the capital mostly went on as usual. Medical workers’ and engineers’ unions took part in the walkout.

“This gathering today, and this strike that includes most of the professional unions, is to assert our demands and place pressure to achieve them,” said Monther Howarat, a doctor protesting outside King Hussein Cancer Centre.

REFORMS

Plans to raise taxes, part of reforms driven by the International Monetary Fund, have brought thousands onto the streets in Jordan. The rallies snowballed after big unions, representing tens of thousands of public and private sector employees, first called them last week.

Resentment has been building since a steep rise in the general sales tax and the end of bread subsidies earlier this year, under an IMF-driven plan to lower the $37 billion debt.

The government has said it needs funds for public services and argues the reforms will reduce social disparities by placing a heavier burden on high earners.

The king’s letter designating Razzaz addressed the protest’s demands, in a sign the government could shelve the new tax law and slow the pace of price rises. He said the hikes had burdened Jordanians and called for improving services, blaming regional instability for hampering the sluggish economy.

Lawmakers were on course to ask the king’s permission for an early exceptional session, with a majority demanding the withdrawal of the tax law, the speaker has said.

Officials say Razzaz had been an opponent of reforms that hurt the poor. His appointment still sends a message to foreign donors that Jordan will press ahead with reforms, though in a gradual way, they said. (Reporting by Ellen Francis, additional reporting by Bushra Shakhshir, editing by Angus McDowall and Angus MacSwan)

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