By Suleiman Al-Khalidi
AMMAN (Reuters) - King Abdullah swore in a new government on Thursday charged with preparing for Jordan's first parliamentary election since the Arab Spring.
The new prime minister, Abdullah Ensour, said his main task was to restore public confidence in an election process long marred by accusations of meddling by the authorities and the powerful security forces.
"The main challenge is holding free and fair elections," said Ensour, 73, who has held a string of senior ministerial posts in more than two decades in public office.
However, Jordan's only effective political opposition, the Islamic Action Front (IAF), have already said they will boycott the poll because nothing has been done to rectify an electoral system that is skewed against them.
Ensour was appointed by the king on Wednesday to replace Fayez al-Tarawneh, a week after parliament was dissolved halfway through its four-year term. An election must be held within four months.
Foreign Minister Nasser Joudeh and Finance Minister Suleiman al-Hafez, who negotiated a $2 billion loan from the IMF, kept their posts in a smaller, 21-member cabinet dominated by conservative politicians who held sway in previous governments.
Most of the cabinet are drawn from tribal areas inhabited by the native Jordanians who are the backbone of the army and security forces, and could lose out from any wider democratic reforms.
Only three ministers including Joudeh come from the Palestinian community making up the majority of Jordan's 7 million population, who are under-represented in government and parliament but dominate the business elite.
ISLAMIST HOPES THWARTED
Ensour's pledge of transparent voting appears designed to reassure members of less influential Jordanian tribes that they will get fair representation, unimpeded by official meddling.
Officials say they hope the election will pave the way for a prime minister to emerge from a majority bloc in parliament, rather than be handpicked by the king.
But it will do nothing to fulfill Islamist hopes that the pro-democracy groundswell of the Arab Spring would prompt Jordan to rebalance its electoral system and give fairer representation to its citizens of Palestinian origin.
Sparsely populated rural constituencies where pro-government tribes are strong get a bigger weighting in parliament than the Palestinian-dominated poor urban constituencies where the Islamists find their support. Wealthier Palestinians with economic power tend not to vote at all.
Some analysts say a parliament without the Islamists could make life easier for the government in the short term, but risks storing up more resentment among citizens of Palestinian origin.
Ensour urged the IAF, the political arm of Jordan's Muslim Brotherhood, to drop their boycott, saying their opposition would be more effective inside the assembly and denying that the authorities were bent on undermining them.
"We don't want to exclude the Islamist movement and we are extending our hands to them. They are an important element of democratic life in Jordan."
He said voter registration could be extended beyond Monday's deadline if the Islamists indicated they were prepared to take part.
(Reporting by Suleiman Al-Khalidi; Editing by Kevin Liffey)