Jordan's Islamists Say They Will Boycott Elections

Amman, Jordan - Jordan's powerful Muslim Brotherhood said Friday it will boycott upcoming parliamentary elections in protest over recent changes to the kingdom's election laws, which it says fall short of opposition demands.

A boycott would deal a blow to King Abdullah II, who has made his reform campaign the centerpiece of efforts to stave off protests similar to those that have toppled other rulers in the region's so-called Arab Spring.

Islamists have made gains all over the Middle East and show increasing strength in Jordan, where regular street protests over the past 18 months have called for wider public participation in politics and restrictions on the king's absolute powers.

Analyst Labib Kamhawi said the Brotherhood's announcement marks the start of political interaction with the government, but warned of looming trouble if the demands are not met.

"The government must either change the elections law again to absorb the opposition, or it risks trouble and a total disengagement between the regime and the people," he said.

The elections, expected at the end of the year though no date has officially been set, are critical to the king's campaign. He has changed 42 articles, or one-third of Jordan's 60-year-old constitution, giving parliament a say in appointing Cabinets — a task which used to be his sole prerogative.

"The government left us no choice but to boycott the elections because it did not show any seriousness toward real reforms," Brotherhood spokesman Jamil Abu-Bakr told The Associated Press.

Abu-Bakr, however, said the Brotherhood — Jordan's largest opposition group — may reverse the latest decision if the government promptly acts on its demands. "We will leave that discussion until a time when the government undertakes serious and real efforts toward reforms," he said.

The main dispute is over a new election law, which gave concessions to the opposition by allowing each eligible voter two ballots instead of one under legislation enacted in 2001. Parliament passed the new on Thursday. Under it, one ballot is reserved for representatives from local districts in this traditionally tribal society, while the other goes to a 27-seat national list of candidates.

That way, Islamists are expected to dominate the national list and also get some votes from the local list, while tribal pro-government candidates will likely muster most of the local support from their particular clan and relatives.

But the Brotherhood argues that the law still favors the king's loyalists and that elections held under it would produce another docile legislature. It insists on an old, 1989 election law, which allowed Jordanians multiple ballots and saw the Brotherhood at the time win almost half of the seats in the first elections in more than two decades.

Information Minister Sameeh Maaytah said the Brotherhood has a right to its own opinion and is entitled to reject the new election law. "But we would like to see all groups contest the elections," he said. "Being part of the decision-making is the right path to building democratic institutions and ensure the continuation of reforms."

He suggested the Brotherhood work within the system to achieve its desired change, including "future amendments to legislation."

Meanwhile, about 1,200 bearded Brotherhood activists marched through downtown Amman on Friday to press for the elections law to be changed. No clashes were reported and the protesters later dispersed peacefully.

"Revolution is headed to Amman," they shouted, choking traffic as they walked in the bustling streets under a simmering sun.

In 1990, six Brotherhood lawmakers joined a Cabinet for the first time ever. But the group's popularity waned soon afterward as its lawmakers and Cabinet members failed to deliver on promises to create jobs and improve living conditions of the poor. Instead, they focused on trivial issues, like banning alcohol aboard flights of Jordan's flag carrier to Arab countries and ending TV talk shows they considered too liberal.

The Islamists boycotted the last two elections but remained popular among poor Jordanians who benefit from Islamic charities that aid schools, banks and hospitals in areas outside the government's reach.

Abu-Bakr said the Brotherhood's 53-member Shura, or Consultative Council, decided on the boycott unanimously in a meeting late Thursday. The decision came almost two weeks after Abdullah appealed to the Brotherhood to contest the elections, as part of his efforts to engage with the Islamic Action Front, the group's political arm.

Despite opposing many of the king's policies, the Brotherhood has remained largely loyal to Abdullah's dynasty, which claims ancestry to Islam's Prophet Muhammad.