Millions of Moroccans headed out to vote yesterday, with worries about joblessness and extremism on their minds as they chose which party will lead their next government.
Adultery scandals and thwarted election-day attacks marked the unusually venomous campaign in this North African nation, which is allied with the US and seen as a model of stability and relative prosperity in the region.
Top contenders are a moderate Islamist party and an up-and-coming rival party seen as close to the royal palace. The palace pledged to loosen control over Moroccan politics after Arab Spring protests five years ago, but still retains control over major policy decisions.
“It’s in God’s hands now,” prime minister Abdelilah Benkirane said after casting his vote.
Voter Fatima Ibn Abou, voting in the same polling station as the prime minister, at the Mouad Ibn Jabal middle school in Rabat, said, “We are just hoping for the best” after the harsh campaign.
Since the last legislative elections in 2011, Benkirane’s Islamist Party of Justice and Development (PJD) has dominated parliament and led a government coalition comprised of several parties with differing ideologies.
The PJD faces tough competition from the Party of Authenticity and Modernity (PAM), widely regarded as close to the palace. It was founded in 2008 by Fouad Ali El Himma, childhood friend of King Mohammed VI and a current royal adviser.
To help illiterate voters, each party is represented by a symbol on the ballot as well as its name – a lamp for the PJD, a tractor for the PAM, and other symbols for 26 other parties.
The election will determine which party leads the government and the makeup of the Chamber of Representatives, which has the final say in Moroccan legislation. The chamber is comprised of 395 seats, 90 of them reserved for women and youth. Nearly 7,000 candidates are running in 92 voting districts. Definitive results are expected today.
Benkirane has clashed in recent public spats with Ilyas El-Omari, head of the PAM. This week, Benkirane slammed El-Omari for comments he made suggesting that state-funded associations were among groups involved in radicalising Moroccan youth.
With high unemployment and low literacy, Morocco has been fertile recruiting ground for extremists. As many as 1,000 Moroccans have joined the ranks of the Islamic State group in Iraq and Syria.
On Monday, authorities dismantled a ten-member terror cell comprised entirely of women with alleged ties to IS.
Abdelhak Khiame, head of Morocco’s Central Bureau of Judicial Investigations, said the cell planned to carry out attacks on election day.