Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 27 October 2020

CORONAVIRUS

Jordan prepares for elections amid anger over Covid-19 missteps

King Abdullah dissolves Parliament and Senate, with government next, before November 10 polls

Omar Razzaz resigned as Jordan's prime minister but has been asked to stay on in a caretaker role. Reuters  
Omar Razzaz resigned as Jordan's prime minister but has been asked to stay on in a caretaker role. Reuters  

Jordan’s King Abdullah dissolved the country’s parliament and senate on Sunday, paving the way to dismiss a government facing growing public anger over a coronavirus surge and what many call a wasted lockdown.

Parliamentary elections are set to take place on November 10. Under the constitution, the government must be dissolved within 10 days of parliament.

Observers and insiders say he is likely to replace Prime Minister Omar Razzaz with a caretaker prime minister and government, as new polls show three quarters of Jordanians believe the country is heading in the wrong direction.

It is a stunning turnaround in fortunes for Mr Razzaz, whose imposition of one of the world’s most stringent lockdowns in March helped Jordan to flatten the curve and limit new daily virus cases to five or fewer for months.

Yet a mishandling at the borders with Syria and Saudi Arabia led infected border and Customs officials to bring the coronavirus back into Jordan while its international borders were still sealed.

They told us not to worry, that they had it under control. They didn’t

Khawla, mother of three in Amman

With the government struggling to keep the country’s economy open and curb social gatherings, decisions have been erratic and often contradictory.

Daily Covid-19 cases have soared from single digits in early August to a record 830 cases and four deaths on Saturday. Another 431 cases and a death were registered on Sunday.

Citizens have directed their anger at Health Minister Saad Jaber, who assured Jordanians that after two weeks of a full lockdown the coronavirus would “dry up and die”.

Mr Jaber even declared on June 28 that the virus had died in the kingdom.

Another source of anger is the government’s insistence on opening schools on September 1 despite public doubts.

Coronavirus outbreaks at dozens of schools forced the kingdom to return to distance learning two weeks later.

“When there were five Covid cases, the government closed businesses and made us stay in our homes,” said Khawla, 38, whose three children are now studying at home in Amman.

"When there were hundreds of cases, they told us to send our children to school. They told us not to worry, that they had it under control.

"They didn’t. Students are sick, schools closed and we have a pandemic in Jordan. They lied to us.”

Despite expanding social security, health care and guaranteeing salaries during the lockdown, much of the government’s social safety net measures have since expired.

Unemployment has risen to a record 23 per cent this quarter. Unofficial estimates place youth unemployment at 60 per cent.

Most Jordanians who have kept their jobs are receiving between 50 and 75 per cent of their monthly salary.

“The government killed the economy, closed the country down, and now we are in a worse spot than when we were in March,” said Mohammed, 28, who lost his job as an accountant and now drives his car for Uber part-time.

“What was it all for?”

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Coronavirus in the Middle East

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Odeh Ahmed was forced to close and sell his Amman antiques and souvenirs shop across the street from the Roman Theatre in late July, as the closure of the airport hit tourism.

Mr Ahmed, who was not wearing a mask, now sells his wares from a blanket spread out on the pavement in central Amman.

“We were glued to the television every night for the government press conference for every update; how many cases were registered, which neighbourhoods were quarantined, what the new procedures were,” he said as he laid out copper antiques.

“Suddenly, when the cases grew, the government opened schools, mosques and restaurants and told us everything is OK.

"I stopped wearing a mask two weeks ago. I am not sick, but I am sick and tired of caring and listening to this government.”

Musa Shteiwi, professor of political sociology at the University of Jordan, said: “There is a deep public frustration not only with the coronavirus’s spread, but with the government’s measures.

"Many people feel we have been cheated after all our sacrifices and early success."

The frustration is reflected in public polling.

In a survey carried out in late September and released on Sunday by the Centre for Strategic Studies at the University of Jordan, 74 per cent of Jordanians said the country was heading in the wrong direction.

Only 10 per cent of Jordanians said the country was moving in the right direction, down from 55 per cent in July and a fall from 91 per cent in the middle of the nationwide lockdown in March.

Sixty per cent of Jordanians are dissatisfied with government’s pandemic measures, compared to 37 per cent who are satisfied.

Fifty-seven per cent believe the government has failed in its handling of the crisis, according to the survey.

But some Jordanians say they are sceptical that a change in government could turn Jordan’s fortunes around.

“The government can only do so much when people are gathering in the hundreds for weddings and engagement parties,” Mohammed Rawashdeh, 55, said through his mask as he and his wife walked through downtown Amman.

Thousands of candidates have already registered for the parliamentary elections on November 10.

Yet there is a growing apathy among Jordanians over the election.

Opinion surveys released by Jordanian election monitor Rased show only 28.4 per cent of Jordanians aged between 18 and 35 and 30.4 per cent of women said they would take part in November’s polls.

Official sources say they expect participation of about 30 per cent, which would be the lowest on record for Jordan.

“We don’t want elections for a parliament of thieves to do the government’s bidding,” said Saed Ibrahim, 43, a lawyer who expected little from Mr Razzaz’s successor.

"We want an honest and clean government that is honest with us."

Mr Shteiwi said: “If there is fresh blood and a prime minister who can send positive and clear messages to the population, it can positively change the mood among the public as Jordan navigates this crisis … at least in the short term.”

Updated: September 28, 2020 03:52 PM

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