All change in Morocco as Islamist party enjoys early surge in election

ELECTION results for the first 50 seats in Morocco’s parliament announced by the state news agency yesterday suggest a moderate Islamist party has taken 40 per cent of the vote.

With just a fraction of the results for the 395-seat Parliament reported, the opposition Justice and Development Party looks to have dramatically increased its share. Party secretary general Abdelilah Benkirane said on Friday that by its own estimates, his party had come in first.

According to the new constitution, the party with the most seats gets first crack at forming a new government, so if the trend continues, the Islamists must find coalition partners willing to work with them.

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In recent years, Morocco’s Islamists have cultivated an image as honest outsiders battling corruption and seeking to improve services, rather than focusing on moral issues such as the women’s headscarf.

Morocco, a popular destination for European tourists and a close ally of the United States, suffers from high unemployment and widespread poverty.

If the Islamists do end up winning the most seats, that would appear to confirm a trend of victories by Islamist parties in elections prompted by the Arab Spring, following Ennahda’s win last month in Tunisia.

With dozens of parties running and a complex system of proportional representation, Morocco’s parliaments are typically divided up among many parties, each with no more than a few dozen seats, requiring complex coalitions that are then dominated by the king.

Like the rest of the region, Morocco was swept by pro-democracy protests decrying widespread corruption, which the king attempted to defuse over the summer by ordering the constitution modified to grant more powers to the parliament and prime minister and then holding elections a year earlier. Activists, however, have called the moves insincere and clamoured for a boycott.

The government announced a 45 per cent turnout in Friday’s contest, slightly more than legislative elections in 2007, but still less than other polls in this North African kingdom.

A coalition of eight liberal, pro-government parties led by finance minister Salaheddine Mezouar have amassed roughly the same amount of seats as the Islamists in the preliminary results announced, but it is the largest single party that forms the government.

The PJD, as the Islamists are known by their French initials, took 40 per cent of the vote, with the rest divided between another half dozen parties.

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At that polling station, at least 16 per cent of the ballots were either blank or invalid, often because voters had crossed out every party in protest at the choice.

In 2007, 19 per cent of ballots were invalid. In the course of Friday’s vote a number of Moroccans, both those voting and not, expressed dissatisfaction with the political process and the choice of politicians.