RABAT, (Reuters) – Polls opened in Morocco on Friday in parliamentary elections expected to show gains for opposition Islamists pushing an anti-corruption message that has drawn wide support in the north African kingdom.
From the slums of Casablanca on the Atlantic coast to the sweltering Saharan villages in the south, some of the 15 million registered voters began choosing from 33 parties and dozens of independent candidates seeking seats in the 325-member assembly. “I voted for an Islamist party,” government employee Hamida Salwan said at a voting station in the capital Rabat. “I’m not happy with what the government has done in the past five years. I hope my vote will help to improve the condition of the poor and the disadvantaged.”
University teacher Asma Kartawi, 43, said she had cast her ballot for politicians who had fought previous “repression”, suggesting she had voted for a secular leftist party. “I trust these people to push toward freedom and democracy and women’s rights,” she said.
Analysts say the moderate Islamist Justice and Development Party (PJD) has a chance of winning cabinet seats if they emerge as the single biggest party. PJD leaders say they aim to win up to 80 seats, a big rise from their current strength of 42. But a complex voting system will make it almost impossible for any group to win a majority.
Whatever the outcome, real power will remain with King Mohammed, who combines roles as executive head of state, military chief and religious leader of the country of 33 million.
The polls are the second parliamentary vote under the reform-minded monarch, who ascended the throne in 1999 on a wave of popularity after the iron-fisted rule of his father. He has spearheaded gradual social reforms but has kept tight control of power. He can nominate anyone as prime minister, no matter the election result, and his choice is expected to lead a coalition government composed of ministers of several parties. Surveys have shown past vote buying has hurt the popularity of the present parliament. Rural poverty is also widespread and urban unemployment is high at about 15 percent, fuelling social tension that many blame for a rise in religious militancy.
Some liberals fear the PJD wants Islamic rule, and some human rights activists fear Islamists may provoke violence like that which Algeria has suffered for the past 15 years. But PJD candidate Khalil Haddaoui said the party stood for something else: “I am a practising Muslim but the values of Islam are values for modern society, permanent values — values of honesty, integrity, humanism, solidarity.”
In Algeria on Thursday, a suicide bomber believed to be an Islamist rebel killed 14 people in the eastern town of Batna ahead of a scheduled visit by President Abdelaziz Bouteflika.
Morocco’s PJD calls al Qaeda an “enemy”, and some in the Moroccan establishment see the PJD’s moderation as a religious bulwark against jihadists vowing attacks against “infidels”.
The outgoing coalition of royal palace appointees and once rebellious left-wing opposition figures is hoping voters will reward it for five years of cautious reform that included a bid to eradicate slum housing and improved rights for married women.
The coalition includes the other main contesting parties — the Union of Socialist Popular Forces (USFP) and conservative Istiqlal (Independence), have respectively 50 and 48 seats.
Final results are expected on Sunday.