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In-consequential public opinion?

Oct 07,2018 - Last updated at Oct 07,2018

Deja Vu 2011? Will people take to the streets to protest the new income tax law? Probably this is the most frequently asked question in Jordan these days and is often complemented by the question where is the country heading? This sense of uncertainty grows in times of despair and lack of clarity, which is made more complicated by a widespread sense of pessimism as two thirds of Jordanians say the country is heading in the wrong direction, according to the most recent poll by University of Jordan’s Centre for Strategic Studies (CSS).

There are two competing narratives to answer the two questions. One narrative argues that nothing serious will happen and business will continue to run as usual with sporadic and controllable peaceful expressive protests. This narrative is basing its argument on historical experience as Jordan managed through 70 years of troubles, including 10 regional wars of various scales of passive or active involvement and a civil war, in addition to numerous protests since the 1950s, including in 1989, 1996, 2002, 2003, 2011-2014 and 2018. Surviving these troubles is attributed to consensus on the Throne as a guarantor of stability, strength and professionalism of the security establishment, rationality of Jordanians to preserve the state of stability and security, unwritten innate international insurance policy of Jordan for its role in preserving peace and stability and finally the strength of the civil service body despite its problems.

It is expected that these strength factors will aggregate power resources, as in the past, to offset consequential protest action. The weakness of this narrative comes from inability of government institutions to be adequately responsive to people’s priorities and now add concerns.

These concerns come from the following set of evidence of a similar period in 2011. In February 2011, 46 per cent of masses and 63 per cent of elites supported protest demonstrations, according to CSS polls. In May 2011, support for demonstrations went down to 15 per cent among the masses and to 47 per cent among elites after violence wrecked Egypt, Tunisia, Yemen, Syria, Iraq Bahrain and Libya. Fast-forward to September 2018, according to NAMA Strategic Intelligence Solutions (NAMASIS) polls, two thirds of masses supported new demonstrations to prevent tax increases down from three quarters in June, and in June 2018; hype, over 80 per cent supported demonstrations to topple prime minister Hani Mulki. This means the incubating environment of protest action has grown to similar levels as in 2011 before the Arab Spring turned bloody. Lingering memories of violence may have similar impact to reduce the possibility of translating support to action, but it is not guaranteed.

The second point of concern comes from perceived weak government compared to the government back then. In May 2011, prime minister Marouf Bakhit’s government after 100 days in office had same approval as on its formation, according to CSS May 2011 poll, as compared to Prime Minister Omar Razzaz’s today, which dipped significantly by nearly 10 percentage points for the PM, according to NAMASIS and CSS polls, and nearly 20 per cent for the ministerial team among the masses, according to CSS data. Razzaz’s team is seen as much weaker than Bakhit’s among the masses and elites alike with a 55 per cent rate of approval for Bakhit’s team and only 5 points lower than Bakhit, who was followed by prime minister Awn Khasawneh who was perceived more positively by the masses than all his successors. 

The third point of concern is that now we have a league of PMs, Razzaz and Mulki, whose approval rating after 100 days in office is below 50 per cent compared to all other former PMs between 1996 and 2016, including Adnan Badran who managed to pull back after a major reshuffle of his Cabinet.

In February 2011, 7 per cent of masses reported participating in demonstrations, compared to 21 per cent among elites. These percentages decreased as the social desirability effect began to vanish on the drums of war and bloodshed in neighbouring countries. The results were over 7,000 demonstrations with participants numbering over 100,000 throughout 2011. Now pro-protest action have a new set of hard and soft reasons to protest tax increase, bad economy, weak belief in equal opportunity, weak ministerial team with low service delivery, perceived record high levels of corruption and a lingering romantic idea of Fourth Circle political euphoria. Similar to 2011 set reasons. 

As the sense of hope that accompanied PM Razzaz ascension to premiership clearly demonstrates, if provided with a credible sense of hope for a better economic future, Jordanians will come around once more to rally around a project of national hope but not as they did in June. They, or at least significant plurality of them, were disappointed. They may get more disappointment as growth on one hand, and interest rates and taxation on the other are inversely related.

 

The writer is chairman of NAMA Strategic Intelligence Solutions

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