By Suleiman Al-Khalidi
AMMAN (Reuters) - Jordan's electoral commission set January 23 as the date for early parliamentary elections on Tuesday after King Abdullah dissolved parliament halfway through its term, responding to pressure for an acceleration of political reforms.
But Jordan's only effective opposition, the Islamic Action Front (IAF) which is the political arm of the Muslim Brotherhood, have already said they will boycott the vote because nothing has been done to overhaul an electoral system skewed against them.
The official news agency said the commission, set up in July as an independent body to prevent government meddling and help ensure fair elections, made its decision a day after voter registration had expired.
The authorities said 2.28 million voters had turned up for registration out of 3.7 million eligible in a population of around seven million in the Hashemite kingdom, a staunch Arab of the United States.
Minister of Information Samih al-Maaytah said the final registration figure showed Jordanians were "keen to participate in polls for an assembly" that would bring real reforms.
But political commentators said registration was relatively low, reflecting the Islamist boycott as well as political apathy among Jordanians of Palestinian origin, a majority of the population, who are under-represented in parliament and the state but whose business elite are pillars of the economy.
King Abdullah, in power since his father King Hussein's death in 1999, was forced to make steps towards more democracy in response to protests inspired by popular uprisings that have toppled four Arab dictators since the early part of last year, with Syria's president fighting an armed insurgency next door.
But the king has been constrained by a tribal power base that sees reform as a threat to their privileged position.
ELECTORAL FAIRNESS AT ISSUE
King Abdullah appointed a new government on Wednesday led by veteran politician Abdullah Ensour, a week after parliament was dissolved with a mandate to hold the election within a four-month constitutional deadline.
Ensour said he was committed to holding fair elections that address long-standing criticism of alleged vote rigging and interference by security forces that has marred previous voting.
The king had repeatedly said he wants elections to be held later this year or at the latest early in 2013.
In a meeting with members of a newly established constitutional court on Monday, King Abdullah said he hoped the coming elections would see prime ministers appointed from a parliamentary majority rather than handpicked by him.
The monarch has, however, been frustrated in his effort to obtain a wider consensus for expanding representation in the assembly beyond one that serves the interests of a tribal political establishment run by native Jordanians.
The electoral law preserves a system that marginalizes the representation of Jordanians of Palestinian origin, on whom Islamists generally rely for their support, in favor of native Jordanians who keep a tight grip on power and form the backbone of the powerful security services.
A boycott by the Muslim Brotherhood is threatening to damage the legitimacy of any future parliament. Political commentators say that real change requires the electoral system to address discrimination against citizens of Palestinian origin.
Their resentment at their political second-class status could strengthen the hand of the Muslim Brotherhood, which enjoys a strong following among Palestinians living in refugee camps and impoverished urban districts.
Although there have been protests by tribal and Islamist opposition demanding the king fight corruption and calling for wider political freedoms, Amman has so far managed to avoid a wider and deeper revolt like those seen in other Arab states.
In a country where the monarchy is a guarantor of stability among feuding tribes who seek his protection and acts as a balance between the country's Palestinians and native Jordanians, no one wants to topple the king.
(Editing by Mark Heinrich)