Middle East

Jordan Islamist boycott 'damages election credibility'

Islamic Action Front rally in Amman in January 2008

Jordan is the only country in the Middle East to allow the Muslim Brotherhood to play an official role in national politics.

But is it thought that the government has actively restricted the organisation's influence in recent years.

The Islamic Action Front, the Muslim Brotherhood's political arm in Jordan, has now announced they will boycott upcoming parliamentary polls, saying the government cannot ensure a fair election.

King Abdullah, Jordan's ruler, dissolved parliament last November - half way through its four-year term - citing its failure to carry out far-reaching political and economic reforms.

In the 1990s, the Islamic Action Front held nearly half of the 110 seats in the Jordanian parliament. 

But in the last election four years ago, it only won six seats. It attributed the loss to the government turning a blind eye to vote buying and ballot box stuffing.

'Blow to reforms'

Since then, political infighting has also divided the Islamist bloc primarily amongst those pushing a purely Jordanian political and economic agenda versus hardliners and supporters of Hamas, the Islamist militant group that runs the Gaza Strip.

Even in its weakened state, no other opposition movement has emerged to compete with it.

Some analysts see the election boycott as a blow to Jordan's political reform efforts since the biggest opposition party in parliament, the Islamic Action Front, would have no voice.

"Also, voter turnout will be far lower, particularly in key urban areas, such as Amman, Zarqa and Irbid where the Palestinian presence is greater," said Mohammad Abu Rumman, a political commentator with the al-Ghad daily.

Image caption Although weakened by infighting, the Islamic Action Front is Jordan's biggest opposition party

"A low voter turnout would question the polls' legitimacy," Mr Rumman said, particularly as the new government of Prime Minister Samir Rifai has been at pains to promote this election as inclusive, transparent and free.

Malaise

More than half of Jordan's six million population is of Palestinian origin, and so events in the Palestinian territories often have ramifications in Jordan.

The 2006 election victory of Hamas, a Brotherhood offshoot, in the West Bank and Gaza, combined with the growing presence of Palestinian militants in the Brotherhood movement in Jordan alarmed the moderate pro-US government, making it wary of allowing the group a wide political scope.

The Brotherhood says it seeks to bring about an Islamic state through peaceful means. 

But as one of the world's oldest Islamist groups, it has in the past tried to overthrow various Arab regimes and hence its ban in most places.

But the Brotherhood has been an ally of the Jordan's Hashemite monarchy, playing a significant role in Jordan's politics following its independence from Britain in 1946.

More recently, however, its staunch opposition to Jordan's 1994 peace treaty with Israel and to King Abdullah's tacit support of the US-led war in Iraq has firmly put it in the opposition camp.

Both Mr Abu Rumman and Jordanian writer Jamal al-Tahat believe the malaise about election participation has gone beyond the Islamist camp and is affecting even ex-army officers and other members of the political establishment who believe needed reforms will be slow to come, if at all.

"Even traditionalists don't believe a free election will take place," Mr Tahat said. "There's little trust of the current system and government and the vague discourse used by the regime over the past few years."

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