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Moderate Islamists win Arab Spring-inspired elections

Morocco's Islamist Justice and Development Party won Sunday's parliamentary elections, according to official results. King Mohammed called general elections after ceding some powers, which gave way to the party's first victory.


AFP - A moderate Islamist party won the most seats in Morocco's early parliamentary elections, final results showed Sunday, giving it the right to lead a coalition government for the first time.

The victory comes less than a month after a moderate Islamist party won Tunisia's first free election and days before their predicted surge in Egyptian polls in other polls brought on by the Arab Spring uprisings.

The Justice and Development Party (PJD) captured 107 seats in the 395-seat assembly in Friday's polls, the Moroccan interior ministry said. It had 47 seats in the outgoing parliament, which made it the main opposition party.

"Our goal has always been the stability of the country even as we firmly demanded reforms. The results are better than we expected," PJD leader Abdelilah Benkirane told cheering supporters at the party's headquarters in Rabat.

The election was the first since the approval of a new constitution in a July referendum that transfers some of King Mohammed VI's near absolute powers to parliament and the prime minister.

Under the new constitution the king, the latest scion of a monarchy that has ruled the north African country for 350 years, must now choose a prime minister from the winning party instead of naming whoever he pleases.

The new prime minister will also have the power to appoint government ministers and dissolve parliament.

The king proposed changes to the constitution as pro-democracy protests brewed at home and autocratic regimes toppled in nearby Tunisia, Egypt, and Libya.

The election was originally planned for September 2012 but the monarch brought the vote forward to create a new government that could put in place the constitutional reforms.

"We are going to wait for King Mohammed VI to nominate a prime minister before we start talks with other political parties," Benkirane told AFP after the final results were announced.

An Islamist party has never been allowed in the government. Since the PJD will have to govern in a coalition with several other parties, it is not expected to make radical changes in policy.

Benkirane, 57, who sports close-cropped white hair and matching beard, acknowledged that his party would have to tailor its programme to appease its coalition partners.

"But the nub of our programme and of those who will govern with us will have a double axis, democracy and good governance," he told the France 24 television on Saturday after the interior ministry released partial results that showed his party had won the most seats.

Two parties that make up the outgoing governing coalition -- the Independence Party of the incumbent prime minister and the Socialist Union of Popular Forces -- have said they would be willing to govern with the Islamist party.

The new government will have to work with the king, who still retains broad powers and acts as arbitrator, at a time when Morocco is facing signficant challenges, including high youth unemployment and worsening public finances.

"The standard will be set by the king," said political scientist Khadija Mohsen, a specialist on Morocco who is based in Paris.

"He will continue to chair the Council of Ministers and cannot content himself to be outside of the system."

Unlike the banned Islamist opposition group Justice and Charity, the Justice and Development Party pledges its allegiance to the monarchy.

After winning just eight seats in 1997, the party has surged in popularity, scooping 42 seats in the 2002 election, the first of Mohamed VI's reign, and then increasing its share in 2007 when it finished second.

The party focused at first on social issues, such as opposition to summer music festivals and the sale of alcohol, but has shifted to issues with broader voter appeal like the fight against corruption and high unemployment.

During the current campaign it promised to cut poverty in half and raise the minimum wage by 50 percent.

Several hundred PJD supporters celebrated the election win at the party's headquarters in an upscale Rabat neighbourhood by singing and chapping.

"I voted for the PJD because it is the voice of the people. They speak in the name of the people," said a young man in his 20s who gave his name as Youssef as he sipped a juice at a Rabat cafe terrace.

Voter turnout was 45.4 percent, up from 37 percent from the last parliamentary election in 2007, but lower than the 51.6 percent turnout recorded in 2002.

Morocco's pro-reform February 20 protest movement, responsible for protests held just before the king announced plans to change the constitution, had called on voters to boycott the election. It argues the reforms do not go far enough.

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