A moderate Islamist opposition party is poised to emerge the winner of Friday’s parliamentary elections in Morocco, the second such victory since the revolts against Arab autocrats began to erupt a year ago.
The Justice and Development party won 82 of the country’s 395 seats in parliament and appear on track to win at least 106, making it the largest bloc in parliament, according to preliminary election results. Only 305 seats are contested, with the rest distributed proportionally.
Under the terms of a a constitutional reform package enacted this year, the party can now try to form a new cabinet but is likely to need coalition partners and will have to propose a prime minister that meets the approval of King Mohammed VI, the country’s ultimate authority.
The party, known by the French acronym PJD, does not question the legitimacy of the monarchy, unlike the outlawed Islamist Justice and Charity party, which did not take part in the elections.
PJD’s leader quickly sought to allay western concerns that the party would try to alter the country’s course, although he said it supported “more balanced” relations with the European Union and United States.
“We are aware that Morocco is a traditional ally of the EU and the US and we have no intention to propose something different”, PJD secretary-general Abdelilah Benkirane told reporters, according to the official Maghreb Arab Presse news agency. “What we are advocating for today is to forge together and in a democratic fashion more balanced links”.
He later clarified to the FT, “The balance is always to their side, with regard to certain things, [economic] interests, money and so on,” declining to elaborate further.
The party’s deputy leader Salaheddine Othmani told the FT it would try to reduce waste and revamp the public sector. “We want a government that works in the service of the ordinary citizen”, he said in an interview. Legal loopholes allowing for corruption in the awarding of public sector contracts should be eliminated, he said.
Observers are watching Morocco closely as an example of an Arab state that has opted for gradual reform amid the wave of political unrest known as the Arab Spring that was sparked by the self-immolation of a distraught Tunisian fruit vendor nearly a year ago.
A new constitution gives parliament greater powers, although the final say and control of the security forces remain in the hands of the monarch.
“It is the breeze of the Arab spring that has blown on Morocco,” said Mr Othmani.
“We don’t want to come in and change everything in Morocco. But we want to respect the specificity of Morocco. In a region that has known barbarous killing [Algeria], we have undertaken a path of reform, without any radical rupture, and always within the framework of existing institutions.”
The revolutions in Egypt and Tunisia spawned Morocco’s February 20 protest movement, which took to the streets again on Sunday in a series of nationwide rallies. The movement urged people to boycott last Friday’s elections and the referendum on constitutional changes which took place in July.
The loose coalition of activists says the political process is rigged to give a veneer of democracy while granting the monarchy ultimate authority. “I think people want to see more democracy and they want to see a separation of powers”, Zineb Belmkaddem, a supporter of the February 20 movement, said in a telephone interview. “PJD is a political party that existed within a political scene that was very corrupt. In the context of the Arab Spring we could do a lot better – a real parliamentary monarchy like they have in Europe”.
The interior ministry said voter turnout was 45 per cent, up from previous elections, but far lower than the turnout in Tunisia last month, where a moderate Islamist party won over 40 per cent of seats in a constituent assembly that will draft a new democratic constitution.
Morocco’s Independence Party came second in the election, putting it on track to win at least 59 seats.
A statement issued by the National Democratic Institute, a US organisation which monitored the elections, highlighted “the lack of voter enthusiasm, calls for an election day boycott, and the significant number of invalid and spoiled ballots” as signs of public cynicism about the vote.
“From a technical point of view, it was a fair election, but democracy is about substance as much as form,” Bob Rae, leader of the Liberal Party of Canada, former premier of Ontario, and a leader of the team monitoring the vote, said in a press release. “Seeing the number of people who actively spoiled their ballots as well as those who did not participate, it is clear that the path to real change will take more effort and time”.