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Islamists face liberal challenge as Moroccans head to the polls

AFP file photo | Some 16 million Moroccans are registered to vote in Friday's general election.

Moroccans vote in parliamentary elections on Friday, five years after an Islamist-led government took office following protests inspired by the Arab Spring.


The Islamist Justice and Development Party (PJD) aims to fight off a liberal opposition which says it wants to roll back the "Islamisation" of Moroccan society.

But the real power will remain in the hands of King Mohammed VI, the scion of a monarchy that has ruled the North African country for 350 years.

A moderate Islamist party, the PJD came to power in 2011, months after massive street protests prompted some concessions from the monarchy and a new constitution at a time when autocratic regimes were falling in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya.

Prime Minister Abdelilah Benkirane's PJD heads a broad and diverse coalition which includes communists, liberals and conservatives.

The PJD and its allies have won plaudits abroad for pushing an austerity programme that has helped overhaul public finances. They say a second term will allow them to press ahead with social reforms and tackle corruption.

“The PJD like to portray themselves as the clean party, the one that will fight corruption,” says FRANCE 24’s Chris Moore, reporting from Casablanca.

Focus: who are Morocco's Islamists and liberals?

But the party’s task has been complicated by the unstable world economy and a drought this year that has hit Morocco's vital agricultural sector and sent growth plummeting.

It has also faced a string of scandals within its ranks including a drugs bust, a land-grab deal and the suspension of two vice presidents found in a "sexual position" on a beach.

Turnout decisive

The PJD’s main challenger is the liberal Authenticity and Modernity Party (PAM), which was formed in 2008 by a close adviser to the king.

Headed by Ilyas El Omari, it has poured enormous resources into a campaign criticising the government's economic record as "catastrophic" and pledging to roll back the "Islamisation" of society.

The PAM, which wants to legalise cannabis, aims to bring more women into parliament, where they hold just 67 out of 395 seats.

“And a third group, perhaps the most significant one, are those who won’t be voting at all,” says FRANCE 24’s Chris Moore.

During the last election in 2011, 55 percent of eligible voters failed to cast their ballots. The previous vote, in 2008, saw abstention reach 63 percent.

Once again, turnout will be a key factor amid widespread disillusion with political parties and a sense that the monarchy will continue to call the shots, whoever wins the election.

Video: How Morocco's constitutional monarchy works

A list system and an electoral threshold that has been halved from six to three percent could hand small parties a key role in forming the next government, with a total of 30 parties taking part in the vote.

Under the 2011 constitution, the king appoints a prime minister from the biggest party in parliament once the election results have been announced.

He remains the decision-maker on long-term and strategic issues including foreign policy and major infrastructure projects, said Riccardo Fabiani, a North Africa analyst.

"Parliament and government are free to choose the policies as long as they are compatible with the monarchy's preferred approach," he wrote in an article for the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

(FRANCE 24 with AFP)


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